The tiny forefoot of a lizard of the genus Anolis was trapped in amber about 15 to 20 million years ago. Every detail of this rare fossil is visible under the microscope. But the seemingly very good condition is deceptive: The bone is largely decomposed and chemically transformed, very little of the original structure remains. The results, which are now presented in the journal "PLOS ONE", provide important clues as to what exactly happens during fossilization.
How do fossils stay preserved for millions of years? Rapid embedding is an important prerequisite for protecting the organisms from access by scavengers, for example.
Unusual find: A tiny lizard forefoot of the genus Anolis is trapped in amber that is about 15 to 20 million years old.
© Photo: Jonas Barthel
Decomposition by microorganisms can for instance be prevented by extreme aridity. In addition, the original substance is gradually replaced by minerals. The pressure from the sediment on top of the fossil ensures that the fossil is solidified.
"That's the theory," says Jonas Barthel, a doctoral student at the Institute for Geosciences at the University of Bonn. "How exactly fossilization proceeds is currently the subject of intensive scientific investigation."
Amber is considered an excellent preservative. Small animals can be enclosed in a drop of tree resin that hardens over time. A team of geoscientists from the University of Bonn has now examined an unusual find from the Dominican Republic: The tiny forefoot of a lizard of the genus Anolis is enclosed in a piece of amber only about two cubic centimeters in size. Anolis species still exist today.
Vertebrate inclusions in amber are very rare
The Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History has entrusted the exhibit to the paleontologists of the University of Bonn for examination. "Vertebrate inclusions in amber are very rare, the majority are insect fossils," says Barthel.
The scientists used the opportunity to investigate the fossilization of the seemingly very well preserved vertebrate fragment. Since 2018 there is a joint research project of the University of Bonn with the German Research Foundation, which contributes to the understanding of fossilization using experimental and analytical approaches. The present study was also conducted within the framework of this project.
The researchers had thin sections prepared for microscopy at the Institute for Evolutionary Biology at the University of Bonn. The claws and toes are very clearly visible in the honey-brown amber mass, almost as if the tree resin had only recently dripped onto them - yet the tiny foot is about 15 to 20 million years old.
Scans in the micro-computer tomograph of the Institute for Geosciences revealed that the forefoot was broken in two places. One of the fractures is surrounded by a slight swelling. "This is an indication that the lizard had perhaps been injured by a predator," says Barthel. The other fracture happened after the fossil was embedded - exactly at the place where a small crack runs through the amber.
Amber did not protect from environmental influences
The analysis of a thin section of bone tissue using Raman spectroscopy revealed the state of the bone tissue. The mineral hydroxyapatite in the bone had been transformed into fluoroapatite by the penetration of fluorine. Barthel: "This is surprising, because we assumed that the surrounding amber largely protects the fossil from environmental influences."
However, the small crack may have encouraged chemical transformation by allowing mineral-rich solutions to find their way in. In addition, Raman spectroscopy shows that collagen, the bone’s elastic component, had largely degraded. Despite the seemingly very good state of preservation, there was actually very little left of the original tissue structure.
"We have to expect that at least in amber from the Dominican Republic, macromolecules are no longer detectable," says the supervisor of the study, Prof. Dr. Jes Rust from the Institute for Geosciences. It was not possible to detect more complex molecules such as proteins, but final analyses are still pending. The degradation processes in this amber deposit are therefore very advanced, and there is very little left of the original substance.
Acids in tree resin attack bone
Amber is normally considered an ideal preservative: Due to the tree resin, we have important insights into the insect world of millions of years. But in the lizard's bone tissue, the resin might even have accelerated the degradation processes: Acids in the tree secretion have probably attacked the apatite in the bone - similar to tooth decay.
Institut für Geowissenschaften
H. Jonas Barthel, Denis Fougerouse, Thorsten Geisler, Jes Rust: Fluoridation of a lizard bone embedded in Dominican amber suggests open-system behavior, PLOS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0228843
Johannes Seiler | idw - Informationsdienst Wissenschaft
In the Arctic, spring snowmelt triggers fresh CO2 production
06.07.2020 | San Diego State University
The latest findings on the MOSAiC floe
06.07.2020 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung
Kiel physics team observed extremely fast electronic changes in real time in a special material class
In physics, they are currently the subject of intensive research; in electronics, they could enable completely new functions. So-called topological materials...
Solar cells based on perovskite compounds could soon make electricity generation from sunlight even more efficient and cheaper. The laboratory efficiency of these perovskite solar cells already exceeds that of the well-known silicon solar cells. An international team led by Stefan Weber from the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research (MPI-P) in Mainz has found microscopic structures in perovskite crystals that can guide the charge transport in the solar cell. Clever alignment of these "electron highways" could make perovskite solar cells even more powerful.
Solar cells convert sunlight into electricity. During this process, the electrons of the material inside the cell absorb the energy of the light....
Empa researchers have succeeded in applying aerogels to microelectronics: Aerogels based on cellulose nanofibers can effectively shield electromagnetic radiation over a wide frequency range – and they are unrivalled in terms of weight.
Electric motors and electronic devices generate electromagnetic fields that sometimes have to be shielded in order not to affect neighboring electronic...
A promising operating mode for the plasma of a future power plant has been developed at the ASDEX Upgrade fusion device at Max Planck Institute for Plasma...
Live event – July 1, 2020 - 11:00 to 11:45 (CET)
"Automation in Aerospace Industry @ Fraunhofer IFAM"
The Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials IFAM l Stade is presenting its forward-looking R&D portfolio for the first time at...
07.07.2020 | Event News
02.07.2020 | Event News
19.05.2020 | Event News
07.07.2020 | Health and Medicine
07.07.2020 | Power and Electrical Engineering
07.07.2020 | Life Sciences