Mosquito in Amber
Testing shows that a 46 million-year-old fossilized mosquito, found in Montana, contains the blood of an unknown ancient creature. Image via Dale Greenwalt

In 1913, George Kunz wrote about of the uniqueness of amber (The Curious Lore of Precious Stones). Noting that from our species' earliest times we have marveled at amber, possibly for “as the resting place of the spirit or spirits believed to animate the stone.” As such they show up in some of the earliest jewelry. Amber has come to mean many things in today’s culture, helped in no small way by a 1993 little movie called Jurassic Park, where amber, or more accurately, the mosquito caught inside, is siphoned for its prehistoric engorged blood. Despite the many impossibilities surrounding this, reality sometimes is better than fiction. Several researchers announced this week in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, headed by D. E. Greenwalt, that they have uncovered the hematophagic remains inside a Middle Eocene (~46 mya) blood engorged mosquito. The authors note that “Fossils … contain[ing] direct evidence of hematophagy are extremely rare.” The report didn’t establish whose blood was in the mosquito, but established a rare example of fossilization, and a reference to a technique of extracting, without invasive drilling, that these are more than just pretty stones. They were also able to determine that the mosquito trapped in this amber was female; distended abdomen with blood is characteristic of females of this group of mosquitoes, not males.

But what is possibly most remarkable is the steps it took for this single mosquito to become fossilized. “The insect had to take a blood meal, be blown to the water’s surface, and sink to the bottom of a pond or similar lacustrine structure to be quickly embedded in fine anaerobic [free of oxygen] sediment, all without disruption of its fragile distended blood-filled abdomen.”

Fossils come in all shapes and sizes, and of strange and contingent circumstances. What one may be predictable, is often skewered by the whims and fancies of nature. In this case, there is no dinosaur DNA; the insect lived a few million years AFTER that of the last dinosaurs. And the large DNA that everyone hopes will be used to regenerate a dinosaur in some island laboratory, no. But, the other complex organic molecules are traceable back, beyond biological time, into the great spans of geological time. Amber still holds fascination with our cultures, now even more so.