Ants, wasps, thrips, spiders and other organisms dating to 95 million years ago are preserved with remarkable, life-like detail in Cretaceous amber from Ethiopia, according to a new study.
The amber, described in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first from Africa to contain fossils.
Many of the preserved insects and plants represent the earliest African remains for certain species that either went extinct ages ago, or which were the distant ancestors of modern species.
Although the Cretaceous insects, ranging in size from .02 to .2 inches long, lived when dinosaurs were still around, at first glance they look like something tiny you'd find crawling or flying in your kitchen today.
"On a first approach, the fossil insects and spiders found in this amber are strikingly similar in aspect to their extant relatives," co-author Vincent Perrichot told Discovery News.
"But after a thorough examination, they can be distinguished based on some morphological differences," added Perrichot, a post-doctoral associate in paleontology at the University of Kansas Paleontological Institute and a researcher at the University of Rennes.
"Mostly these fossils show a combination of characters, primitive or advanced, which still exist today, but are found only in separate species."
He and his colleagues used powerful microscopes to analyze the amber, which was excavated near the town of Alem Ketema in the eastern part of the northwestern Plateau of Ethiopia. A few hundred pieces of amber were found there, of which 62 have been studied so far.
The "most outstanding discovery," according to the scientists, is "a complete, well-preserved although enrolled, wingless ant." It's one of the world's oldest fossilized ants, and suggests that ants may have first arose at, or near, what is now Africa.
Previously it was thought ants emerged in Laurasia, a continent that later broke up to form North America, Europe and Asia.
Lead author Alexander Schmidt told Discovery News that "the ant was probably foraging on the soil and on plants" when the resin blob trapped it. Angiosperms, or flowering plants, were just starting to spread.
It's believed that angiosperms and many insects, such as ants, co-evolved. No pollinating insects were found in the amber, suggesting that flowering plants were still rare in Ethiopia at this time when cone-bearing trees and shrubs were more plentiful there.
Other significant finds in the amber include a male spider from the Linyphiidae family of sheet-web weavers.
It's the second oldest member of this family ever discovered. Schmidt, a professor in the Courant Geobiology Research Center at the University of Gottingen, said the dripping resin probably trapped the spider at or near its web, since its modern relatives often construct their webs close to the ground in leaf litter.
Thrips and various small, parasitic wasps, such as the "false fairy wasp," were also found.
Since bacteria, fungi and plant remains were additionally preserved, the amber reveals the interactions insects had with these species.
"A good example for direct evidence of interactions in the amber is the occurrence of fungal remains inside insect fecal pellets that may originate from beetles," Schmidt said.
"The fungi were grazed by insects on their larvae and the insect fecal pellets became enclosed in the liquid resin."
Derek Briggs, director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, told Discovery News, "This is an important paper, reporting the first discovery of amber from the African continent that contains fossils."
Hair of a Fern
"It provides totally new information on the plants, fungi and insect and other arthropods from a woodland setting during the Cretaceous, about 95 million years ago, in the area of Africa that is now Ethiopia,” Briggs added.
The amber is presently housed at the Natural History Museum in Berlin, the Natural History Museum of Vienna, and at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.