Amber is a naturally-occurring substance formed from the fossilization of wood resin (often incorrectly described as fossilized tree sap). When globs of resin land on the ground or in water, they can become buried in sediment. If buried thoroughly enough, the pressure and heat of the overlying layers can cause molecular polarization, which turns the resin into copal. From here, the high pressure and resultant temperature gradually drive off terpenes; once this process is complete, the copal has become amber.
Not all resin samples will become amber. Some are too sensitive to temperature, and all resin will eventually deteriorate if exposed to extreme enough heat. Since it is a biological product, it can be rotted by bacteria or fungi, and moisture can destroy it as well. Sunlight may even damage the resin and make it impossible for amber to form.
Those that do form, however, can remain buried for millions of years until natural processes reveal them. In some cases, amber can contain inclusions, meaning any small items that landed in the resin and became entombed within before it hardened. Often, amber inclusions are mineral or biological in nature, such as small pebbles or grains, insects, pollen, leaves, feathers, and even small vertebrates.
All ambers are formed from resinous deposits with a water-insoluble bitumenous (asphalt) component. They are macromolecules which are created by free-radical polymerization of various types of diterpene and triene labdanes such as communic acid, cummunol, or biformene. Its melting point is between two hundred and three hundred degrees Celsius, above which it will decompose into oil and pitch.
When matured, it has a hardness between 2.0 and 2.5 on the Mohs scale depending on its exact composition. Common ambers are yellow-orange-brown in color, but impurities and inclusions can cause it to be differently colored; for example, pyrite inclusion can make it bluish, and tiny bubbles trapped within the resin can make it opaque. Known colors of amber also include whitish, light yellow, dark brown, and very dark gray; rarer examples are red, green, and blue as mentioned above. Blue amber is considered the most prized variety.
Amber is classified into five different forms, the most common of which has three sub-types. Class I amber is the most common, including labdatriene carboxylic acids. Its subclasses are Ia, based on communic acid and succinic acid; Ib, which lack succinic acid, and Ic, based on enantio-labdatrienonic acids and including the famous Dominican amber. Class II ambers are formed from resins based on cadinene and other sesquiterpenoids, while Class III ambers are polystyrenes. Class IV ambers are non-polymerized and consist largely of cedrene-based sesquiterpenoids. Finally, Class V ambers are made up of a mix of diterpinoid resins and n-alkyl compounds, and are produced mainly by pines.
The oldest-known ambers are 320 million years old, dating to the Upper Carboniferous period. It becomes more common in sediments dating to the late Mesozoic, particularly after flowering plants evolved during the Cretaceous period. Amber of any age can contain organic inclusions, but arthropods specifically have been found in amber as old as the Late Triassic period, about 230 million years in age.
The oldest use for amber, for which humans have valued it since the Neolithic period of the Stone Age, is decoration. Amber’s color and natural beauty means it is considered an honorary gemstone in many cultures even though it is not a mineral. For more than 13,000 years, amber has been fashioned into earrings, pendants, necklaces, rings, and other jewelry; in the modern age, amber was famously used by the Scottish entrepreneur John Hammond and his business partner Benjamin Lockwood to cap their walking canes. In addition to jewelry and ornamentation for tools, amber makes for a stunning decorative centerpiece if prepared well. To prepare an amber sample, it is smoothed and polished, removing rough edges and debris from the exterior. Pure samples are considered desirable, as those with impurities can appear opaque; inclusions of debris can also decrease amber’s value on the jewel market, but plenty of people specifically look for amber with insects and other animals inside.
Folk medicine commonly makes use of amber, particularly as a supposed analgesic or pain remedy. Traditional Chinese medicine uses amber as a psychological relaxant. It was ascribed a variety of medicinal properties by the ancient Greeks and was used in Europe up until the early twentieth century; it was a common traditional remedy for colic and teething pain. Supposedly this was due to analgesic properties inherent to succinic acid. However, scientists have found no evidence that amber is efficient at soothing pain, and teething babies can choke on it by accident; therefore it is not recommended.
The scent of amber is also valued. It can be burned, and will melt into oil if heated under the right conditions; if combined carefully with nitric acid it can produce a musky odor. This was commonly done during festivities in ancient China. Today, real fossilized amber is rarely used in the perfume industry because it produces little actual scent; instead, artificial scents are created to mimic the pinewood smell produced by burning amber but at levels appreciable to the average nose.
Finally, amber is of particular interest to paleontologists. On its own, it can inform scientists about the ecology of an ancient environment by revealing which types of plants lived there. Resins can often be identified as having come from a particular plant, so the variety of amber characteristic to an area will demonstrate the ancient flora that once lived there. However, inclusions present within the samples tell an even more detailed story. In samples from the Cretaceous period and later, insects are often found within, since flowering plants had evolved by that time and insects would congregate nearby. The oldest arthropods found in amber so far have come from the Late Triassic in the form of microscopic gall mites and a nematoceran fly. Jurassic amber from Lebanon has provided some of the oldest samples of ancient ecology due to its high levels of arthropod inclusions. Perhaps the most sought-after amber is the Burmese variety, found in Myanmar’s Hukawng Valley: this is the only commercially-exploited Cretaceous amber at the moment, and over 1,300 species new to science have been described from it. Burmese amber is in such high demand that trade in it supports slavery and other human rights violations in Myanmar.
The types of animals found in amber include not only insects, but also worms, crustaceans, and arachnids such as spiders. Spider webs have even been found. Microfossils can also be discovered in amber, including examples of prehistoric bacteria and amoebae. Most inclusions are fragmentary, such as leaves and fruit, flowers, pieces of wood, and animal materials such as fur and feathers. Vertebrate remains are rarer: these include small lizards and frogs, as well as occasionally fragments of larger animals such as limbs and tails.
Amber makes an efficient mechanism for preserving DNA, since it dehydrates and stabilizes the animals trapped inside. On its own, a DNA molecule will deteriorate to the point of uselessness in about a million years; with amber, it can last a hundred times longer. International Genetic Technologies has discovered geophysical mechanisms involving iron that can enhance the preservational properties of amber, and has recovered DNA dating back well over a hundred million years. InGen obtained blood samples from gravid female mosquitoes, using novel genetic engineering techniques to reconstruct the damaged sections of DNA and clone the ancient organisms. This accomplishment has proven difficult to replicate, as no academic institutions have succeeded at it yet.
Amber can be found around the world, and is most common in Cretaceous or younger formations. About ninety percent of the world’s extractable amber is from the Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia, where amber has been discovered since the 1100s. Pieces of amber are often located on the seafloor, having been deposited there millions of years ago, and broken off by wave action. From here, people can collect them by hand or by dredging the seabed.
In other parts of the world, amber is mined from the ground. Dominican amber, for example, is obtained via bell pitting. In the Rivne Oblast of Ukraine, an illegal form of amber mining is practiced by organized criminals who deforest large areas and pump water into the sediment; this brings amber to the surface and destroys the surrounding environment. Once amber is removed from the earth, the crust is cleaned off; a common way to do this is revolving barrels full of sand and water. The crust is eroded away by the sand. Amber factories in Vienna turn their samples on a lathe, polishing it with whitening and water, or with rottenstone and oil. Friction with flannel gives it a distinctive luster.
Amber can be gradually heated in an oil bath to make it pliable, and then two pieces can be fused together using linseed oil and heat. Oil baths can also be used to clear up cloudy amber, since the oil fills the pores in the structure. Small leftover fragments can be compressed into a single larger piece, with the result showing bright color.
In C/N canon, amber samples were acquired by International Genetic Technologies from mines around the world and shipped to laboratory facilities on Isla Sorna for extraction. Some were also brought to Isla Nublar, where they would be used for demonstration in the Jurassic Park Visitors’ Center. After the Park was closed down and destroyed in 1989, which probably melted all Isla Nublar amber specimens, most of those left on Isla Sorna were either removed or abandoned.
In S/F canon, InGen acquired amber samples from dozens of fossil-bearing rock formations and mines throughout the world, such as the Mano de Dios mine in the Dominican Republic. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing until June 1993, these samples were shipped to laboratory facilities including the Lockwood estate, the Site B lab complex on Isla Sorna, and the Jurassic Park Visitors’ Centre on Isla Nublar for extraction. This was discontinued in 1993 due to the indefinite postponement of Jurassic Park.
Amber sourcing resumed in 2003 with the rollback of the Gene Guard Act, which permitted InGen (now a Masrani Global subsidiary) to perform de-extinction research again. It is not known what became of Site B facilities since 1995, but Isla Nublar was used again to house and utilize amber specimens. Lab facilities used between 2003 and 2015 included the Hammond Creation Laboratory, field genetics lab, and NMS Center. Some were probably housed at off-site locations as well. Specimens that could not be utilized for genetic material, as well as amber scrap, were sold to jewelry retailers in Jurassic World. At the end of 2015, Jurassic World was closed down due to safety violations, and the amber specimens were either removed from the island or lost.
In L/M canon, much like the film canon, InGen sourced amber from mines and fossil-bearing formations around the globe for Jurassic Park on Isla Nublar during the 1980s and 1990s. Some were probably stored on Isla Sorna, where additional research took place. When construction on the Park halted in 1993, most of these specimens were abandoned, and they became scattered around Isla Nublar.
InGen resumed work on Jurassic Park in 1997 and, with the help of the new park manager, recollected many of the lost amber samples from the island. These were found by clearing away forest and other plant life as well as rocks and debris. New amber samples were studied to increase the company’s genetic library; eventually Jurassic Park was redeveloped into Jurassic World after being bought by Masrani Global Corporation, further increasing the scope of its research.
Behind the Scenes
In real life, no scientists have ever been able to recover ancient DNA from Mesozoic-aged amber. Attempts have been made, but no fossilized mosquitoes have yet yielded blood. The estimate that amber could preserve DNA for up to a hundred million years was calculated by Bada, Wang, and Hamilton in 1999 (Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Vol. 354 pg. 77 – 97), but in 2013 Dr. David Penney and his colleagues at the University of Manchester were unable to recover DNA from an insect in Holocene copal.