Photograph by George Poinar Jr.
Photograph by George Poinar Jr.

A Tiny Amphibian Trapped in Amber Is a New Species

The only known salamander from the Caribbean is preserved in a drop of golden sap that formed 20 million years ago.

This story ran in the April 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

More than 20 million years ago a salamander hatchling less than three-quarters of an inch long met a traumatic end. A hungry predator—perhaps a spider or bird or snake—ripped off its left front leg, leaving the stub of a bone jutting from its side. The salamander managed to escape but then must have fallen into a pool of tree resin, which preserved the tiny amphibian as it hardened into amber.

George Poinar, Jr., a biologist at Oregon State University who specializes in amber, believes he collected this specimen in the Dominican Republic years ago without realizing that it was unique. When he examined it recently, he was astounded to see the salamander—the first such creature ever found in amber and the only one, extinct or living, known to come from the Caribbean.

It has since been identified as a new genus, based on visible physical features such as the large webbed front and back feet. “This shows,” says Poinar, “that just because we haven’t found something in a particular area doesn’t mean it didn’t exist there millions of years ago.”