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FEATURE ARTICLE

Amber's Botanical Origins Revealed

Large collections of the substances exuded by trees today may help to track backward from amber samples to the ancient plants that produced them

Jorge Santiago-Blay, Joseph Lambert

Figure 2. Which is real amber and which is fake?Click to Enlarge Image

Amber is a marvelous time capsule for the study of ancient insect life that becomes trapped in its polymerized clutches. But amber is itself a much less-recognized historical puzzle. Often, the plant that produced the substance is unknown. Being able to tell the tree family that produced the ancient resin could help in the reconstruction of the paleoecology of certain areas—and it can also aid in making sure that the amber sample is indeed ancient, naturally produced and an accurate species for the area in which the sample was found, instead of some clever fake. But to classify ancient amber chemistry, there must be a catalogue of modern plants that exude saps. This has been the work of Jorge Santiago-Blay, who has spent the last five years canvassing U.S. botanical gardens for oozing trees. The immense compilation he's created has been used, with the aid of chemist Joseph Lambert, to identify the types of plants that produced amber in several locations, and their conclusions have been confirmed by fossil evidence. Santiago-Blay has also built up a charming travelogue of his adventures while roaming around the country searching for plant goo.


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