A collection of beautifully preserved bees, ants, spiders and other small creatures that lived 50 million years ago has been unearthed in a huge amber deposit in India.
Scientists said the fossilised globules of tree resin have entombed a spectacular menagerie of insects that had survived the extinction of the dinosaurs and lived at a time before mammals had evolved.
The amber deposit is the first to be found in India and may be larger than the Baltic deposits in Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Germany, which are the biggest in the world and have proved a rich source of the semi-precious gem for more than 200 years.
Amber forms when the sticky sap of trees solidifies into lumps of resin, which, when buried, becomes fossilised into a substance valued for its colour and translucence. The resin produced by the trees has antiseptic properties to protect the plant against fungi and bacteria, a feature that also helps preserve any insects or small animals that become trapped in the soft resin before it solidifies.
The new deposits were found in the open-cast coal mines of the Cambay region of north-west India.
Insects found in Baltic amber are often empty shells because their inner, soft parts have dissolved. However, the Indian amber preserves the insects intact.
"We are able to dissolve the amber and get the specimens completely out," said Professor Jes Rust of Bonn University in Germany, who led the team.
"This is really outstanding. It's like getting a complete dinosaur out of the amber and being able to put it under the microscope."