The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.
This description is from David Temple, the museum’s curator of paleontology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating fossils in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org/ – throughout the year.
This amber gem, from the La Toca mines in the Dominican Republic, was once sticky sap from the Hymenaea protera tree. The tree produced the sap to serve as a liquid band aid, to prevent decay, and to protect against fungus or insect attack by sealing injuries to the tree. The wet resin also had the unintended effect of trapping and preserving many of the forests inhabitants. Millennia passed, the trees lived and died, the sap hardened. Erosion washed the hardened sap into rivers, where it was buried in clastic sediments. Through plate tectonics, the rock containing the resin was uplifted into mountains, and the process that buried them during the Oligocene and Miocene periods brought them to light again 20-40 million years later.
Amber has always been prized by people. The Ancient Greeks even believed the source to be the tears of the sun. The transformation of resin to amber is still not completely understood, but the variables of burial, time, heat and pressure combine to remove the volatile elements in the resin. Though not as old as the Baltic amber known to the Ancients, the Dominican amber is usually clearer and contains more inclusions.
This flower is from the Hymeneae tree, a species that could produce copious quantities of resin, the source of the Dominican amber. The flower had not fully emerged when it was broken from the limb and landed in the wet, flowing resin. Though not visible in this photograph, microscopic mite-like arthropods can be seen living inside the flower as well. The fast moving resin engulfed and preserved not just individuals, but relationships between plants and animals as well.