Fossilized Cicada Entombed In Opal Reveals Precious Gems Can Contain Ancient Life

The cicada-stuffed opal marks the first time a specimen has been preserved in this way. B. Rondeau/Chauviré et al 2020, Scientific Reports

Perhaps one of the most iconic fossils on Earth is the bug preserved in amber, made famous by Dr John Hammond’s cane in Jurassic Park. Exquisitely preserved within was a mosquito that was instrumental in the film’s plot as DNA was extracted from the specimen (an, at the time of writing, impossible feat in mosquitos but something recently achieved with beetles). New research, however, has revealed that amber isn’t the only geological time capsule revealing insights into ancient life, as the shell of a cicada has been discovered suspended in an opal. The findings were reported in the journal Scientific Reports.

Opal is a precious gem that forms at relatively low temperatures in the cracks of most rock, commonly found inside limonite, sandstone, rhyolite, marl, and basalt. Depending on the conditions in which opal forms, it can be transparent, translucent, or opaque in nearly any color of the visual spectrum. The rarest is black opal while white, gray, and green are considered the most common.

The cicada shell described in the study was contained within an opal that formed as the weathering of volcanic rock and glass released silica, which combined with fluid and filtered through the rock. The cicada remains were coated in a layer of zeolite, a silica-rich mineral that crystallized on the shell as it was exposed to the silica-filled fluid filtering through the rock, encasing the specimen and eventually forming an opal. The shell likely found its way into the rock as part of a clay deposit that originated from the degradation of plant remains.

A depiction of the process through which the cicada shell found itself entombed inside an opal. Fanny Gangloff/Chauviré et al 2020, Scientific Reports

The result is a clear opal that looks as if it contains a deep-fried cicada, which quite frankly would look majestic AF mounted upon a staff. The opal, pulled from rock in Indonesia, has been nicknamed “Beverly,” a precious name for a precious gem.

As well as taking preserved specimens and making it fashion, Beverley presents a new route in the search for ancient life, both here on Earth and on other planets. When Earth began it was a volcanic environment, providing the perfect conditions for opals to form. We know that early Mars was volcanically active, meaning the future of searching for signs of extraterrestrial life could involve hunting for opals on the Red Planet.

We see your mosquito-stuffed amber, Hammond, and raise you alien opals.

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