National Science Foundation awards more than $480,000 to amber preservation project

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.

Read more about the amber preservation project.

Decades-old amber collection offers new views of an ancient world

Illinois Natural History Survey paleontologist Sam Heads, left, and laboratory technician Jared Thomas are screening 160 pounds of amber collected in the Dominican Republic in the late 1950s. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

INHS Paleontologist Sam Heads, Jared Thomas, and Yinan Wang found a new pygmy locust embedded in amber. In a paper released today, the species was described and named Electrotettix attenboroughi, in honor of Sir David Attenborough. Attenborough narrated a video about their research. To find out more, read this article by the U of I News Bureau.