Asma’s bug blog

Asma Ahmed’s URAP experience: Assessing the UCMP Amber Type specimen collection! 

I have been working the last two semesters in the UC Berkeley Museum of Paleontology on assessing the condition of the Type amber collection as part of my project for the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program. This collection was amassed and actively published on during the 1950s to early 1970s by UC Berkeley faculty, their students and colleagues from around the world.

Long-term exposure to light can cause amber to darken so as a precaution we moved the amber collection into a light-tight Delta Designs transfer case (door removed) during the imaging, assessment and rehousing phases, which also helped provide easy access.

Together with PI Dr. Diane Erwin, I devised a system for characterizing the condition of this collection. The substandard storage of the amber specimens did not fully come to light until the digitization work started. As we discovered, the amber specimens were stored in 1 X 3 inch cardboard slide mounts sealed with a thin plastic cover slip.

Drawer of specimens showing the old cardboard slides and the new storage in labeled gem boxes.
Close-up of old slide mounts with cover slips cut out and the new labeled plastic gem boxes.

Back in the day, the cardboard slides were thought to be an adequate storage method. However, in many cases the cardboard has yellowed, indicating they are not acid free, and the cover slips were placed (forced in many cases) over specimens that were taller than the slide well. I noticed that a lot of the amber damage was centered on the fracturing that resulted from being constrained in the slides from the cover slips pressing down on the amber itself. Since the amber is very fragile, any pressure can result in multiple fractures, and the closer those fractures were to the inclusions, the less likely one can actually see the insect clearly.

Furthermore, amber pieces showed scratches on their surfaces that, in part, were likely caused by the drag of the cover slip over the specimen (and the specimen against the well bottom) when the cover slips were pulled out. Some specimens were placed in double-thick cardboard slides and these fared better because the cover slips were less likely to be pushing down on the amber.

As part of my workflow, I removed the specimens, examined them with the microscope to assess their condition, recorded my findings in an excel spreadsheet, and then transferred the specimens into ethafoam-lined, light and airtight labeled plastic gem boxes to avoid further damage. To remove the amber specimens I used a scalpel to cut one side of the cardboard so that the cover slip could be removed by lifting it up rather than sliding it out.

This way, there was no further detrimental contact between the cover slip and the specimen. There are instances where handling the amber can result in more crumbling, so all the amber must be handled very carefully when taken out of and/or placed back into housing. In handling the amber it is best to use soft forceps, which minimize stress when you squeeze them because they give in response to pressure and don’t do any damage to the amber. There are even instances where placing the amber in the new box can be damaging, so the ethafoam padding needs to be cut so that it holds the amber securely, but also so that the amber isn’t so secure it is being squeezed. In order to make sure that is the case, I would hold the amber over the ethafoam and cut a hole that is slightly larger than the amber itself. That way, the amber will stay within the hole, but also has some wiggle room that avoids any stress to the amber. 

Asma assessing fossil amber inclusions using the microscope.

Although amber darkness did impact the quality of the images, I found that in many cases it did not affect visualization of the insect unless it was coupled with extensive fracturing. Otherwise, it only blurred the image of the fossil, but didn’t make it impossible to see details. The amber specimens embedded in resin or in resin and mounted on glass microscope slides were in excellent condition: there was nothing to distract you from the fossil and you could pinpoint the location of the insect almost immediately. Fossils with internal fracturing often made shapes that look like it could be an insect, so you could mistake those patterns as an insect. Oxidized amber is generally more fragile, and therefore more likely to get fractured. All the amber has been placed in these airtight boxes and cushioned by ethafoam so that they do not move around in the boxes and undergo further damage. 

Asma using soft forceps and a combination of LED gooseneck lamps for angled side lighting and a light disc for bottom lighting.



I also noticed amber that was originally housed in the airtight gem boxes were generally in better condition than the ones that were in the cardboard slides. They were generally lighter-colored and didn’t feel that fragile when being handled by the soft forceps. This is probably due to the fact that when they are placed in airtight places, exposure to air is minimized.

Asma entering her amber assessment observations/data into the Excel spreadsheet.
Dark fractured piece of amber with scratches on surface. Inclusion at arrow.
A termite in piece of dark amber. Despite the dark nature of the amber, the inclusion is clearly visible in this image and even more so when viewed with the microscope.
Image showing detail of the head and prothorax of the termite shown above.

I assessed the amber specimens by examining their relative amount of fracturing and translucence. Amber specimens were assessed through the F-factor, a score from 1-10 that assesses how much of the amber is covered in fractures, and clarity, which is also scored on a scale from 1-10 based on how clear the amber is. There were situations where there is a lot of fracturing and/or the amber is very dark, but the area around the fossil is clear. In these cases, I made a note in the specimen comments section that the fossil is visible.

Screenshot of my spreadsheet listing the specimen number, locality number, clarity, F-factor, photograph (yes/no), embed (yes/no), and additional comments.

There were some cases where the amber specimens were given a high score for clarity (meaning it is completely dark), but the insect itself can be seen clearly. In those cases, the darkness of the amber provided the sharp contrast needed in order to see the insect itself. In the cases where the amber is very dark, it is generally too hard to see the insect at first. However, once you have a dim light shining beneath the amber, which makes the amber itself a lighter color, and no lights shining on top (because the result is a mirror effect where you can’t see anything but the glare of the light) the insect-which is very dark-becomes a stark contrast to the dark red of the amber. This allows for the clear visualization of the insect fossil, which would not have been visible beforehand.

Holotype amber specimen embedded in resin and affixed to a glass microscope slide nearly 60 years ago.

In general, the damage done to the amber has more to do with its F-factor than with clarity. So when calculating the percentage of amber that is damaged, the highly damaged ones are given an F-factor score of 5 or higher, whereas the less damaged ones are given a score of 4. At the time this blog was written, I had assessed 175 amber specimens. Of those fossils, 53 were highly damaged (30.3%) and 27 were moderately damaged (15.4%). My results show that among this sample 80 specimens will be given the highest priority for embedding in resin (45.7%). Embedding the fractured amber in resin will seal the cracks making the amber strong enough to withstand normal handling. The resin will also seal the amber from future oxidation, enhance the photographic quality and their detailed study with the microscope. 


Marwa’s Crush – Frans Blom & “Forever Amber”

There is always more to science than just science

By: Marwa W. Ibraheem

It is hard to walk down the aisles of the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) without feeling that overwhelming adventurous vibe. These exquisite collections may seem still now, tucked safely away in cabinets, tagged and numbered in tidy and well-organized storage units, however, just looking at them will instantly spark one’s imagination as they attempt to visualize them in the field from where they were collected. The little tags they carry provide so many important details about what they are, where they’re from, how old they are, when they were collected and by whom.

Side of the same canister at left containing Chiapas amber specimens loaned to Mr. Pope showing the original shipment date of October 15, 1962.
Front-side of one of two original canisters containing amber specimens loaned to Mr. R.D. Pope, Esq. Both were returned to UCMP in 2016 and appeared to never have been opened by Mr. Pope.

One of the most significant collections at the UCMP are the insects in amber. It includes amber specimens from different locations around the world, the largest number coming from Chiapas, Mexico. These specimens along with other fossil insects at the museum are currently being digitized through the NSF-funded Berkeley Fossil Insect PEN (BFIP). While working on the project, the BFIP team found that some amber specimens were missing, many having been sent out decades prior on loan to researchers around the world. It was time now to turn to the amber files to see if we could glean clues from these documents to track down their whereabouts, and hopefully repatriate them back into the collection so they, too, could be imaged.

The amber archive files as described on the UCMP’s blog by Lucy Chang include 85 folders numbered and arranged alphabetically based on their contents of letters, receipts, manuscripts, maps and photos. Much of the material includes letters exchanged between UC Berkeley professors in the former Departments of Entomology and Parasitology, and Paleontology, and their colleagues worldwide. In a general sense, the letters were every day typical scientific correspondences, requesting specific specimens for loan (or returning them), inquiring about funding possibilities or collaboration opportunities and/or exchanging manuscripts before and after suggested modifications. The one remark about the letters is how proficient the professors conducted their scientific work, the articulate language they used, the “vintage” stationary, the stamps and wonderfully prompt mailings given the state of postal services at the time.

One mail “thread”—as we would call it nowadays in our world of email—in folder 19 strongly stood out and drew my special attention. It was coming to UC Berkeley right from the heart of Mexico (Chiapas). The mail thread’s back and forth letters were exchanged over the course of a decade (1952–1962) between three of our renowned professors here at Berkeley: J. Wyatt Durham, Ray F. Smith and Paul D. Hurd, and the legendary Mayan explorer Frans Blom in Cristobal, Mexico.

The Amber Files; 85 folders of archival documents that include letters, receipts, maps and manuscripts.
Frans Blom as a young man.

Frans Blom, a daring Danish Mayan explorer born in 1883 to a wealthy family, lived such a revolutionary life as an archaeologist and as a man. He left it all behind in Denmark and headed to America in 1919. Soon after arriving in the United States he moved to Mexico to work for an oil company, a position he left later on to pursue his studies and explorations of Mayan archaeology. Despite Blom’s numerous contributions to the history of Mayan civilization, only his 1928 expedition received much attention. He possessed an unintentionally haunting dominating presence that reflected in his letters in a very exciting way. Adding to his debonair persona he became known as Don Pancho or Pancho.

From the first glimpse one definitely recognizes that there is absolutely nothing ordinary about his letters. And it is not just that they are full of rich professional details that outline the adventurous expeditions that the professors led with the great guidance, support and careful planning and arrangements of Blom, but were written in the most literary yet spontaneous non-scientific language I have ever read. Pancho vividly writes himself down with every word to the degree that the letters turn into his own reflection.

Portion of one of the many type-written letters Blom wrote to his colleagues at UC Berkeley.

Pancho settled in San Cristobel, Mexico in 1950, where he and his wife Gertrude (Trudi; a professional photographer) bought a house (casa). They called it Casa Na Bolom (House of the Jaguar), the name inspired from the fact that Blom and Bolom (‘jaguar’ in the Tzotzil language) are pronounced similarly. Due, in part,  to growing financial concerns, as was mentioned by Blom to Professor Hurd in 1952, the house was converted by adding rooms and an adequate library to serve as a hotel for special guests and a research center for scholars and researchers during their expeditions and field work. Blom’s sister often referred to Casa Na Bolom as a madhouse and Blom’s visitors as ‘inmates.’ Blom, aside from his Mayan exploration adventures had an agreement with UC Berkeley professors in 1955 to manage and arrange for their amber collection expedition in 1956, and the short visits that followed within the framework of the “Forever Amber” project as the professors and Blom called it. The preparations included setting schedule, drawing maps, providing hosting details, hiring pack animals and muleteers and securing provisions and reservations. Blom also had carefully and promptly adjusted the plans given the earthquake and the landslide that occurred in November, 1955, just in time before the actual trip took place in January, 1956. On October 6, 1957, Hurd sat down with “The University Explorer” broadcaster Hale Sparks for a program called “Forever in Amber” to talk about amber, its formation, the inclusions, and the Chiapas amber project.

In his own words Don Pancho would use phrases like, “Are you nuts or you got a hell-icopter…I hit the ceeling [sic] when I read your schedule,” in reply to a logistically unrealistic field trip schedule and plan proposed by one of the Berkeley professors. Which in reply, Professor Hurd wrote back saying “It is quite evident from your letter that you have me pegged as one of those stuffed shirt jokers and you may be quite right. At any rate, your opening sentence leads me to believe that the ideal itinerary, which we proposed cannot even begin to be consummated.” The two became more than friends later on. Blom would also inquire about a new correspondent by asking, “Who is this bird?,” while attaching the correspondent’s letter as a reference. Or expressing his dismay in writing using choice words like “Damit,” that the native workers were throwing away amber pieces with inclusions thinking that they were flawed. Or describing out of impatience his finally-sent report as “darned.” And jokes about the received funds writing, “I can assure you, though, that we didn’t spend any of it on nightclubs.” And in describing the scene of the November, 1954 Simojovel earthquake he didn’t forget to mention that, “The Padre in Yajalon was hit on the back by a fallen bit of a cornice and everybody is sorry that it did not hit him on the head.” He had such a great sense of humor in the most unexpected way, as you read through this history you cannot help but laugh.

Portion of the letter in which Blom signed as “Mol Pancho.”
UCB Entomologist Paul D. Hurd, aka “Don Paplo.”

Real friendships developed between Blom and UC Berkeley’s entomology and paleontology professors, especially with Professor Paul Hurd and his family; Grace (wife) and Kathy (daughter). Such friendship was displayed in so many ways like when Blom decided Paul shall be called “Don Paplo” during a trip, and when Blom sent him a jaguar claw and wrote: “an insignia given only to sons who have been on a field trip with the Blom Trudi and Na Bolom combination.” Such genuine friendship that would back Hurd up when he sent a letter to Blom asking about the possibility of him and Professor Ray Smith coming for 2–3 weeks in the summer of 1962 and writing: “Doubtless your reaction will be: “those crazy Berkeley Professors” since, as I recall, this is what you felt about our proposed mule train trip in search of amber” referring to Blom’s “hell-icopter” comment.

Blom and Trudi at the Casa na Bolom.

Blom and Trudi were also always keen to send postcards and photos that feature him, his family and their close friends in Casa Na Bolom, stamped or decorated by the lovely jaguar logo of the house. They would talk about social and native environment and events along with extraordinarily beautiful postcards, photos and hand drawn maps. And just like a novel would go, the social life of the families was also a sweet line to follow up with as the wives exchanged regards, warm invitations and constant efforts in providing charity supplies for the natives in need.

Blom, Pancho or Don Pancho lead a daring life, gave few worries to his financial status or health conditions, but unfortunately, as mentioned in the literature, he had two addictive bugs; liquor and cigarettes. So, as in any novel there is always an ending, the reader can feel the energy in the letters fade, Pancho starts signing them as “Mol Pancho,” which he then explains “Mol = Old, Pancho, as the Indians here now call me. Fine.” In those letters he would describe his health status and the treatments he received like in November, 1957 when he wrote “My heart condition is fine. Dr. Cesarman of the Mex. Heart Institute used me as an experimental guinea pig, trying out a new medicine, not on the market yet, and this has worked wonders I feel better than in many years, take horseback rides to get back in training for the field.” Then, as feared,  a date came when a letter arrived without Blom’s “most cordially” hand written signature “Pancho.” That date is June, 1963, but the Casa Na Bolom is still serving the same mission as a hotel and center for researchers to this day.  

A letter sent to Paul Hurd written by Trudi.

Not only did Blom co-author and publish several books, but also his full life in Mexico was, to our good fortune, beautifully documented by many photos taken by his loving, talented wife Trudi, who published a few books herself covering the social side of the natives’ lives in a very exclusive sincere way.  Her books included many photos of Blom in the house and during field work. There are several letters in the folder that are addressed to and written by Trudi, as Trudi also did part of the corresponding with the professors in times when Pancho was out in the field.

Dr. Marwa W. Ibraheem El-Faramawi busy scanning the documents contained in the UCMP amber archive files.

It is also worth mentioning that Blom’s priceless expedition memoires/diaries, field notes, photographs, maps and other belongings are distributed between his house (Casa Na Bolom) in Chiapas, Mexico, Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University, Bancroft Library, UC-Berkeley and the entirely different collection of amber specimens, letters copies and hand-drawn maps at the UCMP. In addition to other resources that were mentioned in the Explorer`s biography written by Brunhouse in 1976, these include; Brigham Young University, Free Library of Philadelphia, New York Public Library, University of Pennsylvania, University of South Alabama, and University of Texas.

That being said, our archival Frans Blom amber files, despite their limited time and size range, is a unique resource, especially one that covers the last decade of Blom’s colorful history, and the crucial role he heroically played in the “Forever Amber” quest.


Frans Blom on expedition, Lacandon rainforest, 1948
Photograph: Gertrude Duby Blom/Courtesy, ©Asociacion Cultural Na Bolom A.C.

Reading about him or navigating through the online reference materials feels nothing like actually holding in your hands the papers he once held — hearing him whisper aloud the words as he would type them, grumbling or giggling with every keystroke. His overlooked history was thoroughly presented in two publications: Frans Blom Maya Explorer (1976) by Robert L. Brunhouse and a more recent biography by historians Tore Leifer, Jesper Nielsen, and Toke Sellner Reunert (2003), the title alone “Restless Blood,” indicates how this book perfectly captures the Blom that I got to know working with his UCMP archives.



Bringing UCMP’s Fossil Insects to Light and More!

Bringing UCMP’s Fossil Insects to Light and More!
The National Science Foundation.

Thanks to a two-year collections digitization grant awarded to the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) by the National Science Foundation’s, “Advancing the Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC)” program, UC Berkeley joined the Fossil Insect Collaborative Thematic Collections Network (FIC) as a “Partner to an Existing Network (PEN)” in the summer of 2015.


The FIC is a consortium of seven institutions that house the largest fossil insect collections in the country. Members include the University of Colorado (Boulder), American Museum of Natural History, Harvard, Yale, University of Kansas, Illinois Natural History Survey (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), and the Virginia Museum of Natural History. The specimen data and images generated by these institutions go to the iDigBio, GBIFiDigPaleo and EOL web portals for online access by anyone. The BFIP data is also accessible through the UCMP and Calphotos online databases.

The BFIP project is contributing specimen data and images of its smaller, yet significant collections of insects preserved in amber from Mexico, those from the Rancho La Brea and McKittrick tar pits of southern California, and the thousands buried 14.5 million years ago in an ancient Nevada lake bed. Although the main task of the BFIP is to provide fossil insect data and images, one our BFIP team members, Dr. Marwa Wafeeq El-Faramawi became intrigued with the amber collection archives. Now one year into the project Dr. El-Faramawi has scanned the contents of nearly all 85 folders.

A beautifully preserved fossil fungus gnat from the middle Miocene of Stewart Valley, Nevada. This specimen is just one specimen among the thousands in the UCMP collection.

The amber archive files are one of the PEN project resources that we first targeted in the hope of finding clues on where some (or all) of the missing amber specimens are in order to track them down and, if lucky enough, get them back. However, going through the files (85 folders) made us realize just how important and probably highly overlooked these documents are. Basically speaking they contain all official correspondences concerning the amber and related research that Berkeley professors had with their peers all over the country and the world. They also revealed most of the specimen’s shipping details and receipts (going back and forth), in addition to drafts and manuscripts that the professors exchanged by snail mail in the old days. As official as they may seem, they definitely revealed more than that. These documents –if you read them right- tell so many stories; stories about the social / friendly or sometimes unfriendly side of the relationship between the professors and in some cases their families. Stories about the history of research in Berkeley and how it was done back then; and it may even tell you stories about the history of mail service at these times. These are the last century’s text messages and being able to view them is a one of a kind time-machine experience.

A dapper young Frans Blom in 1922.

Given that most of the museum’s amber collection comes from Chiapas, Mexico, one of the most interesting folders is number 19, the Frans Blom folder, which includes his correspondences, photos, and postcards from 1952-1962. Frans Blom, also known as Pancho (as he used to sign his letters and postcards), is a highly renowned figure in the world of archaeology and the study of the Mayan civilization in Mexico and Guatemala. The great Danish archeologist and his wife the Swiss photographer Gertude Duby (Trudi) used to supply UC Berkeley Department of  Entomology’s professors Paul D. Hurd, Jr. and Ray F. Smith and UCMP’s J. Wyatt Durham with amber materials and host them in their house, the “Casa Na Bolom” or “the house of the jaguar,” during their amber collecting expeditions in Mexico. The house still existed under the management of his wife Trudi and served as a center for scholars researching Chiapas and Guatemala even after Blom died in 1963. It now serves as a museum, hotel and restaurant. His correspondence goes beyond the official in revealing his hospitality, high sense of humor and sturdy, determinate, courageous self, it also gives details about the expedition made by the UC-Berkeley research team and its before and after arrangements and complications. Frans Blom led an adventurous life that was documented in many articles and books. For more information about the great man it is definitely worth mentioning that the Bancroft Library has an invaluable genuine collection of Frans Blom’s personal and professional history that includes eleven boxes of his papers, diaries, correspondences and more from 1919 to 1942. All these items can be accessed by request for research purposes.

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