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Researchers Uncover New Zealand’s First Fossils Preserved in Amber

The discovery of fossil insects, nematodes and fungi preserved in amber is shedding new light on New Zealand’s geological and biological history.

The small and fragile fossils are 25–15 million years old and include a number of spiders (including web remains with prey), tiny carnivores such as pseudoscorpions, diverse soil-dwelling mites, detritivores such as springtails, biting and gall midges, fungus gnats and chironomids, scale insects, parasitoid wasps, ants, beetles and bark lice. “Some of the arthropods and fungi represent the first fossil records of their groups from the entire Southern Hemisphere,” said University of Otago paleontologist A/Prof Daphne Lee.

Hundreds of kilograms of amber were extracted from lignite deposits, mostly near Roxburgh, Hyde and Pomahaka in Otago. The amber derives from the ancestors of the kauri, resin-producing conifers belonging to the Araucariaceae family that are still found in New Zealand’s north.

“This means that the source of the resin has remained unchanged for at least the past 25 million years. The amber fossils help in understanding the evolution of these long-lasting forest eco­systems on a geologic time scale,” Lee adds.

Amber preserves life forms, providing access to delicate organisms that are otherwise rare or absent from the fossil record. Amber deposits are concentrated in the Northern Hemisphere, where their inclusions have been studied intensively. Until now, the scarcity of major deposits from the Southern Hemisphere has severely hampered understanding of the global evolutionary history of terrestrial invertebrate and fungal biota.

Dr Uwe Kaulfuss of The University of Otago says the fossils are significant because of what they tell us about the country’s ecological history as a long-isolated former Gondwanan landmass. “These fossils are really important for us because they provide a very rare opportunity to look back on what made up New Zealand’s forest and ecosystem 25 million years ago. We now know what kind of animals and plants were around at that time and what has gone extinct since then.’’

The study has been published in Gondwana Research.