An image of some of the insects that were trapped in Amber for around 99 million years. Image Credit: Cai et al., PRSB, 2020).

Amber Reveals the True Color of Insects That Lived 99 Million Years Ago

This is the true color of insects that lived 99 million years ago.


Here’s how ancient fossils preserved in Amber reveal the actual color of insects that lived on Earth around 99 million years ago. Essentially, we are looking at an ancient time capsule that preserved fragments of a world long gone. A research team from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NIGPAS) has revealed the secrets of true insect coloration from 99 million years ago. Typically, the fine structural details necessary for color preservation are seldom preserved in the fossil record, making most fossil reconstructions rely on the imagination of the artists.

Color of Insects That Lived 99 Million Years Ago

Colors offer many clues to the behavior and ecology of animals. They keep organisms safe from predators, at the right temperature, or attractive to potential mates. So understanding the coloration of long-extinct animals can help us shed light on ecosystems in the deep geological past. The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, offers a new perspective on the lives of often overlooked insects, which coexisted alongside dinosaurs in the Cretaceous rain forests. The researchers collected a treasure trove of 35 pieces of Amber with exquisitely preserved insects from an amber mine in northern Myanmar.


Amber from the golden age of dinosaurs

The Amber originates from the Middle Cretaceous, approximately 99 million years old, and dates back to the golden age of dinosaurs. It is resin created by ancient coniferous trees that developed in a rainforest. Animals and plants trapped in the thick resin were preserved, some with real fidelity, revealed researchers. The rare set of amber fossils includes cuckoo wasps with metallic colors of teal, yellowish-green, purple, blue, or green pigments on the head, thorax, abdomen, and legs. “In terms of color, they are almost the same as cuckoo wasps that live today,” explained lead author Dr. Cai Chenyang. The researchers also identified samples of blue and purple beetles and a dark green metallic soldier fly.

Extraordinary color preservation

“We have seen thousands of fossils of Amber, but color preservation in these specimens is extraordinary, “said co-author of the study Professor Huang Diying. The type of color preserved in amber fossils is called structural color. It is caused by the microscopic structure of the animal’s surface. The surface nanostructure scatters light of particular wavelengths and creates very intense colors. “This mechanism is responsible for many of the colors we use. Know about our daily life,” revealed Professor Pan Yanhong, also from NIGPAS, a specialist in pale color reconstruction.

Incredible colors

To learn how and why color is stored in some amber fossils but not others, and if the colors seen in the fossils are the same as the insects wore over 99 million years ago, the researchers cut through the exoskeleton of the specimens.  Using electron microscopy, they confirmed that the colorful amber fossils have a well-preserved exoskeleton nanostructure that scatters light. The unaffected nanostructure of colored insects suggested that the colors preserved in Amber may be the same as those in the Cretaceous. In contrast, the cuticular structures are badly damaged in fossils that do not retain color, which explains their brown-black appearance.


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Written by Justin Gurkinic

Hey, my name is Justin, and my friends call me Gurk. Why? Becuase of my last name. It sounds like a vegetable. Kind of. I love sleeping and writing. History is my thing.

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