Scientists discover 50-million-year-old amber

An ant found in the Cambay amber deposit in Gujarat. AFP

These perfectly preserved bugs – ancestors of modern spiders, ants, termite and bees – cannot be used to recreate prehistoric bugs as their DNA was severely damaged. But it can rewrite the origin and evolution tales for many invertebrates.  Indian, German and US researchers extracted these bugs, spiders and scorpions from 150 kg of amber collected from Vastan and Tadkeshwar lignite mines on the Gulf of Cambay coast coast. Located between Narmada and Tapti river, Vastan is about 30 km from Surat.

Even though similar ambers have been recovered from other parts of the world in the past, for the first time the researchers were able to melt the amber and extract the insects for detailed study. Early insects are rarely preserved as fossils because of their delicate structure.

The study so far has revealed 100 species types belonging to 55 families and 14 orders. The insects revealed unexpected geographic connections to contemporary species from Asia and Australia, and to ancient ancestors found as far away as Mexico and Central America.

The research—published in the ‘Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences’ on Tuesday — offers a direct fossil evidence of Indian amber containing an early record of a tropical forest with diverse fauna. It also opens up a new window for scientists to understand the origin of Indian biodiversity.  Indian landmass was separated from Africa 160 million years ago. It remained adrift for about 100 million years before the collision with Asia about 50 million years ago. Scientists believe a lot of Indian biodiversity was evolved in this period when India was floating in isolation.

“The discovery represents a completely different picture of Indian biosphere from what is known till date. This study helps to unravel some of the mysteries of what kind of organisms like insects, spiders and plants lived during those times,” Ashok Sahni, one of the team members and professor emeritus at Punjab University told Deccan Herald.

Sahni and his colleagues reported the presence of insects in Cambay amber in 2005. But they found only 5 insects and also could not classify those bugs.  The study also shed the nature of forest cover in prehistoric India.

The insects were trapped in the resins of a globally widespread family of a tropical tree family that now covers almost 80 per cent of Asian tropical forest.

“The remarkable insect diversity shown in Vastan lignite mines probably had as its trigger two geological events that heated the earth for some time to more than 6 to 8 degrees Celsius above prevailing mean global annual temperatures,” Sahni said.

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