Opaque amber conceals insights into life forms from tens of millions of years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. But until now, the animals preserved inside the opaque "stones" have remained tantalizingly hidden.
However, a new technological breakthrough has changed all that, enabling scientists to peer into the amber chunks for the first time -- and make some fascinating discoveries.
By aiming a high-tech X-ray machine at opaque amber chunks found near Charentes in southwest France, Paul Tafforeau from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, was able to shine a new light into the amber's secrets.
Together with his colleague Malvina Lak from the University of Rennes, Tafforeau peered into 640 pieces of opaque amber. By collating the X-ray images, the scientists were able to build up, slice by virtual slice, three-dimensional models of the organisms inside the stones. In total, they discovered 356 fossils of plants and animals of the Cretaceous period, which stretches from around 145 million years ago to 65 million years ago.
"Researchers have tried to study this kind of amber for many years with little or no success," Tafforeau said in a statement. "This is the first time that we can actually discover and study the fossils it contains." Amber provides scientists with vital insights into flora and fauna from millions of years ago, as the solidified tree sap perfectly conserves trapped animals and plants.
Tafforeau and his team still have another 80 kilograms of opaque amber to examine. Tafforeau told SPIEGEL ONLINE that he expects to find as many as 10,000 fossils. "The huge number of insect species means it is very likely we will discover new species in the amber," he said. However, the scientists are looking to do more than just find new species -- their goal is to establish a comprehensive picture of the fauna and the ecology of the Cretaceous period.
The new technique even allows the team to "print out" physical models of the bugs using a 3D plastic printer. The models, which can be many times life size, allow scientists to hold the replica insects in their hands and examine the structure of the creatures, which generally measure just a few millimeters at most, more easily.
"In some respects, the models are even better than the original," Tafforeau said.