If you have been to Denmark and paused for a walk through the jewelry stores along the Strøget in Copenhagen or elsewhere in Scandinavia, you will find amber. So what is Baltic Amber? Amber is the fossilized resin of 150-million-year-old conifer trees, usually pines.
The most sought-after amber comes from the Baltic region and is a translucent golden color. Less common is white “bone amber”, while amber in red, violet, green, and transparent yellow is even rarer. It’s actually one of the most amazing antiques ever discovered as it is alive, breathing and interacting with your environment but dating back 140-160 million years.
Amber’s composition is polymerized Fossil Resin, or the remnants of tree sap from an unknown variety of giant trees reminiscent of the Sequoia variety, that once grew in huge forests covering Northern Europe. Scientists believe that an intense climate change caused the trees to shed generous amounts of this resin in order to protect themselves just as our current trees “weep” resin to heal places where branches have become infected or removed.
Like other gemstones, amber is prized for its clarity and transparency but the inclusions in amber are often most interesting. While not as common as presented by jewelers, it is well known that some of these amber pieces have small insects trapped in them, which have assisted paleontologists in the identification of more than 1000 extinct species. Katsnelson (2016) reminds us that the height of the Jurassic period, some 165 million years ago, was also the golden age of massive plant-eating dinosaurs. Other animals—such as small mammals and birds—also darted through conifer forests, which themselves were relatively new on the arboreal scene. Since amber began as a liquid, all sorts of things got stuck in it, from lichen and pine needles to insects and even reptiles. In fact, the book and subsequently the film “Jurassic Park” were both based on the premise that dinosaur blood could be extracted from a mosquito preserved in amber.
Jurassic Love Songs
Along the lines of fossilized amber and all the dazzling information possibly captured within it, is a study published about four years ago in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) which adds a new dimension to our knowledge about the fauna of that time: a sliver of the hit parade from prehistoric times 165 million years ago. While the study does not discuss the amber of northern Europe, it does describe the fossilized wing of an extinct male bush cricket, or katydid, Archaboilus musicus, found by Chinese paleontologists in Inner Mongolia.
Upon discovering several well preserved fossils, a group of Chinese Paleontologists, Jun-Jie Gu and Professor Ren Dong from the Capital Normal University of Beijing contacted Dr. Fernando Montealegre-Zapata and Professor Daniel Robert, entomologists who at the time were part of the School of biological sciences at the University of Bristol in the UK. Also part of the team was Dr. Michael Engel of the University of Kansas (USA), a leading expert on insect evolution.
Crickets and katydids make their characteristic “Love Trill” by rubbing the serrated vein of one wing, called a file, against the so-called scraper on the other wing, and the veins of both wings were remarkably well-preserved in the fossil. By creating mathematical models based on high-resolution images of these structures, Montealegre-Zapata and colleagues recreated the sounds that these 165 million year old insects likely made. Based on studies, it is believed that male A. musicus produced pure-tone (musical) songs using a resonant mechanism tuned at a frequency of 6.4 kHz, which is thought to be a significantly lower frequency that that uttered by today’s crickets. (Click on the picture to hear the sounds.) It is thought that these lower frequencies were safe until other species used the “Love Trill” to hunt for food causing the crickets move their songs to higher frequencies.
The recreated cricket sound caught the interest of artist Peter Eudenbach of Norfolk, Virgina (USA). Eudenbach was captivated by the idea that these recently recreated chirps were among the oldest sounds on Earth. Eudenbach, whose work often explores anachronism, had brushed shoulders with ancient life earlier in his career. Fascinated with channels of communication between the past and the present, he said, “You have this sound, which is by nature ephemeral, that has now been preserved in stone,” and “There’s this poetry in it, this cry into the darkness.”
Following discussion with Professor Montealegre-Zapata, Eudenbach envisioned elements of a new sculpture that he dubbed: Jurassic Serenade. Collaborating with an artist named Sergey Jivetin, who fabricated the sculpture’s physical components and a New York based sound artist, Alfredo Ma, part of the sculpture is an amber carving about the size of a chicken egg, turned on a lathe to replicate the shape of the sound wave that the scientist had decoded. Amber, as described above, is fossilized tree resin. It’s generally a bit younger than the fossil of the katydid’s wing but it hints at the notion of preserving an insect, much as the wing fossil preserved the bush cricket’s aural features.
Eudenbach is still putting the final touches on Jurassic Serenade. The piece will debut in a solo exhibition of his work at the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art in Charleston, South Carolina, from late October to early December 2016. Meanwhile, Montealegre-Z, now at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom, and his paleontologist collaborators continue to study the evolution of acoustic communication in katydids, looking to newly discovered fossils for musical inspiration.
Gu, J., MontealegreZ, F., Robert, D., Engel, M. Qiao, G. & Ren, D. (2012). Wing stridulation in a jurassic katydid (insect, orthopera) produced low-frequency musical calls to attract females. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA DOI:10. pp. 1073. Retrieved September, 20, 2016.
Katsnelson, A., (2016). Science and Culture: Fossilized cricket song brought to life in a work of art. Science Daily. Retrieved September 19, 2016.
Press Release (2-2012). Fossil Cricket reveals Jurassic love song. University of Bristol, UK. Retrieved September 19, 2016.
Slate News Channel (2012). Jurassic Cricket’s Mating Call Recreated From Detailed Fossil. YouTube.com Retrieved September 20, 2016.