Speaker Series 2016: The Amber Trap–Unlocking Stories of Ancient Polar Climates from Fossilized Tree Resin

In this talk, Dr. Annie Quinney, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Arctic Institute of North America at the University of Calgary, presents research on the recent discovery of 90 million-year-old fossil tree resin off the coast of Victoria, Australia. The fossil represents both the oldest amber from Australia and the southern-most occurrence of amber in Gondwana. During the Cretaceous, Australia was located further south than its current location, putting Victoria within the Antarctic Circle. Although little is known about the diversity of life at high southern latitudes during the Cretaceous, the preservation of amber suggests that a thriving forest was present within the Antarctic Circle at this time. At first glance, the amber appears to preserve, entombed within it, plentiful evidence of life: many amber pieces are full of inclusions that resemble microorganisms. However, although some of these inclusions are biological, many are non-biological structures masquerading as fossils. Despite difficulties differentiating between true fossils and fossil look-a-likes, the range of inclusions in a piece of amber may tell us where on a tree the resin came from.

Amber pieces dating back to the same age as the Australian amber were also found in northern Alberta and British Columbia. Geochemical analyses reveal that the Australian and Canadian ambers not only came from the same group of trees, but formed under similar environmental conditions. Comparisons with low-latitude ambers suggest that strong seasonal differences in daylight near the poles affected resin production.


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