Fake Amber Lizards

Anole in amber--but how old?

The fossil record of anoles is disappointingly small. Other than very young (a few thousand years old) fossils found in caves, where owls and other predators may have left them, only four full-fledged fossils are known from the scientific literature. All are lizards preserved in amber, approximately 20 million years old (give or take a few million). Here’s a picture of one here.

But there are a lot more in private hands. The problem, however, is Jurassic Park. Remember how the mad scientists got their dinosaur DNA? They extracted it from mosquitoes entombed in amber. And where did the amber come from? Perhaps you recall the scene of the lawyer (later justifiably devoured by T. rex) getting off a river raft to purchase some amber. Where? The Dominican Republic. And it turns out that those amber mines do exist, only their deposits date to the Miocene, not the Cretaceous. And, more importantly, as well as skeeters and other invertebrates, occasionally an anole-laden piece of amber emerges from these mines.

What’s the problem? JP drove up demand for everything amber, and as a result, the price of amber with inclusions went through the ceiling. Someone not to long ago tried to sell an amber anole (admittedly, a fine specimen) for a million dollars, and ultimately pocketed about a tenth of that price. So, the amber anoles are not finding their way into museums, but into private hands. Nonetheless, there are a good number out there, and owners generally are quite receptive to allowing them to be studied. More on that in another post.

Rather, the topic for today is caveat emptor, buyer beware. Because it turns out that making fake amber specimens is not hard to do.  There are a number of ways to do this, including (simplifying somewhat) splitting real amber, placing a dead lizard inside and then sealing it up, or placing a dead lizard in  a synthetic substance treated to look like amber. Such fakes are well known, and there is even a booklet written about them.

I came across the specimen above while googling “amber lizard.” The company, which deals mostly with human antiquities, has several such specimens (here’s another) “gauranteed (sic) to be authentic and from the period stated.” Nonetheless, my suspicions were aroused. Amber anoles are rare, and suddenly this company had two excellent specimens (and claimed to have sold several others recently). Moreover, they said they were 12 million years old (younger than Dominican amber) and, on first inquiry, stated they were from Asia. Finally, they were priced at a small fraction of what they should be worth if they are authentic.

Email discussions with the company’s representative did not inspire confidence, and when I checked with an expert on amber, he said “I have seen dozens of fakes, and these have all the earmarks: entire specimen within piece (tail curled around to fit into it), bubbles covering the surface (e.g., not fixed, or improperly so), clarity and color of artifical resin, and even the surface texture. In fact, these are probably in polyester resin.”

I passed this information onto the representative, who did not respond; the website still stands by their authenticity. So, if you’re looking for a potential bargain, have at it. Just remember: you’ve been forewarned.

p.s. Bonus points on identifying the species of the entombed anole, if it is really a poor, modern lizard that met an untimely fate.

About Jonathan Losos

Author and Professor at Harvard University
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3 Responses to Fake Amber Lizards

  1. Rich Glor says:

    I have no idea which species had the misfortune of being entombed in plastic, but I’ve seen things like this before. I’m having a hard time remembering where it was, but I once saw what appeared to be a small green anole entombed in amber at an airport gift shop. I think it might have been in Mexico. The specimen I saw was in perfect condition and was obviously a fake. It was being sold for $10 or $20.

  2. 220mya says:

    Fossiliferous Cretaceous amber is found in New Jersey, but I guess it just wouldn’t have looked as good sending the lawyer to the garden state to get amber.

  3. Em Sherratt says:

    My gut feeling on this amber specimen was an obvious fake. The amber is too clear, and if you peruse the site, you will find every other piece with interesting inclusions is the same translucent, yellow colour. My experience of amber specimens is that they always contain other junk (plant debris, tiny insects, dirt). The specimen is also to perfect in shape, has all of its body parts, and is covered by too many air bubbles. This said, i’d still love to CT scan it to see how much the lizard has rotted, if it is indeed an authentic lizard!

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