Commonly referred to as tree sap, however amber is anything but sap! The modern name for amber is thought to come from the Arabic word, amber, meaning ambergris. Ambergris is the waxy aromatic substance created in the intestines of sperm whales. The substance is related to cholesterol and is formed to protect the sperm whale from the sharp beaks and stings of its major food source, the giant squid. Ambergris was used to make perfumes. Ambergris and amber are only related by the fact that both wash up on beaches.
It All Started Millions of Years Ago!
Large number of trees in some parts of the world began to seep its sticky and aromatic resin down their sides and onto the land while filling internal fissures, trapping debris, such as seeds, leaves, feathers and insects on the way. These seeped globes of tree resin collected life forms in the process. As geologic time progressed through the millions of years afterwards, these forests were buried under the ocean or the resin was washed out of the forest floor by large rivers and transported south towards the sea. In the course of time, the globes of resin progressively hardened into a golden gem with a warm and soft glow from within!
The Process of Polymerization
This process of fossilizing tree resin of ancient trees is called natural polymerization and oxidization of original organic compounds. In other words, amber is fossilized resin that is million of years old. Most of the world's amber is in the range of 30 - 90 million years old. Therefore contrary to common belief, Amber is not produced from tree sap, but rather from plant resin.
Amber is the hardened and fossilized resin of trees (usually pine trees such as Pinus succinifera. Although not mineralized it is sometimes considered and used as a gemstone. It is much used for the manufacture of ornamental objects. Most of the world's amber is in the range of 30-90 million years old. Semi-fossilized resin or sub-fossil amber is called copal.
A Container for the whole Tree of Life
In terms of the Tree of Life, amber is most interesting since it entombs all three domains, Arachaea, Eubacteria and Eukarya. Archaea and eubacteria microbes are, of course, everywhere and surely embedded in the amber at high density. Interestingly, it is possible that some microbes. Still controversial finding a decade old claims to have recovered from the gut of a Hymenoptera from 30 million year old Dominican amber some three-dozen species of bacteria from ancient spores that grew on culture plates. The bacteria are from the extant genus Bacillus, a group that go dormant forming spores. Interestingly, Bacillus thuringiensis is used in the biological control of insects. Bacillus thuringiensis parasitizes the caterpillars of some harmful moths and butterflies. Spraying or dusting plants with its provides some protection against gypsy moth, tent caterpillar, and the tobacco hornworm. The bacteria has a gene that produces a toxic chemical warfare. The gene for this toxin has also been introduced into some crops.
The Magnificent Inclusions in Amber
The odd inclusions that are often seen in amber usually add to amber's unique look and in many cases greatly increase its value. It appears surprisingly light and warm to the touch, and readily produces static electricity when rubbed. Indeed it was known to the ancient Greeks as elektron, and it is from this that we have obtained the word electron for the negatively charged particle, and also the word electricity. The metal electrum was so called because of its similarity in color to amber.
The oldest amber recovered dates to the Upper Carboniferous period (320 million years ago). Its chemical composition makes it difficult to match the amber to its producers – it is most similar to the resins produced by flowering plants; however, there are no flowering plant fossils until the Cretaceous, and they were not common until the Upper Cretaceous. Amber becomes abundant long after the Carboniferous, in the Early Cretaceous, 150 million years ago, when it is found in association with insects. The oldest amber with arthropod inclusions comes from the Levant, from Lebanon and Jordan. This amber, roughly 125–135 million years old, is considered of high scientific value, providing evidence of some of the oldest sampled ecosystems.
Amber's Geographic Dispersion
Amber comes from throughout the world, even the Arctic. However, in terms of commercial availability, the Baltic area of Europe produces vast amounts, followed by the Dominican Republic in a distant second, with minor amounts coming from Central and South America, and more specifically, Mexico and Colombia, respectively. Amber from other localities is miniscule.