The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded more than $480,000 to a Prairie Research Institute (PRI) project to preserve and digitize an extensive collection of Dominican amber that is in danger of deterioration without proper curation and care. The plants, arthropods, and vertebrates captured in the amber provide insights into life 16-18 million years ago, during the Early Miocene epoch.
The Milton Sanderson Dominican Amber Collection is the oldest and perhaps largest collection of Early Miocene Dominican amber in the world, consisting of approximately 140,000 pieces collected in 1959 by Illinois Natural History Survey entomologist Milton Sanderson.
“In addition to its sheer size, the Sanderson collection is notable because it’s unbiased,” said project principal investigator Sam Heads, curator and lead paleontologist for the PRI Center for Paleontology. “All other major amber collections are ‘cherry-picked,’ but this amber was collected in bulk from a single locality. Because of this, the collection can provide us with an invaluable snapshot of the biodiversity and ecology of the Dominican amber forest.”
The NSF funding will allow Heads and collection manager Jared Thomas to undertake the urgently needed conservation and curation of the collection. Rediscovered in 2011, the collection had been stored for decades in steel buckets, and during that time it was subjected to temperature and humidity fluctuations. The amber is now extremely fragile, prone to shattering and crumbling.
The first step in conserving the amber will be to carefully screen the entire collection, gently washing each piece and using a high-powered microscope to look for any “fossiliferous pieces”—those that contain whole or partial specimens of insects, plants, etc. These pieces and their glimpses of life millions of years in the past will be embedded in epoxy resin, which protects the amber against oxidation and UV exposure. Cutting, grinding, and polishing the pieces helps to make the specimens trapped in the amber more visible for study.
Each piece of amber will be stored in its own air-tight archival acrylic box. These boxes in turn will be housed in hermetically sealed metal cabinets.
“Quick action is needed to halt further deterioration of the amber,” Heads said. “In the small amount of the collection we’ve been able to study to date, we’ve already identified new species and gained new insight into ancient biodiversity. There’s still so much more to be learned, and this grant will make that possible."
Since the Sanderson collection was uncovered less than a decade ago, Heads and Thomas have found several hundred fossil specimens including an astonishing array of insects and other arthropods (flies, wasps, and spiders, for example), a handful of flowers, and some mammal hairs. These specimens are being digitized as part of the multi-institution NSF-funded Fossil Insect Collaborative TCN.
High-resolution images of every specimen in the Sanderson collection will be captured; images and data will be made available to scholars and the public through the paleontology collection website and the iDigBio and iDigPaleo portals.
A graduate student and undergraduate interns will be involved in the project and will receive training in biological nomenclature, taxonomy, systematics, specimen identification, curation, databasing, microscopy, digital imaging, specimen preparation and conservation, and data analysis.
The project will begin April 1.
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