A friend recently told me that the mosquito encased in amber atop the cane used by John Hammond in Jurassic Park was a real mosquito encased in amber from David Attenborough's private collection (John Hammond being played by David's brother, Richard Attenborough).

It sounded like a cool fact and I wanted to substantiate it, but alas, the prop in the movie is entirely false and is made of resin and faux amber according to this website which has a listing for the prop when it was sold at auction.

In the essence of no smoke without fire, I do wonder, was the mosquito encased in amber inspired by a real artifact, perhaps held by David Attenborough? Specifically, did the props department have a particular source artifact to draw from during design which had perhaps come from David?

I asked my friend where they had heard this from and they couldn't remember, but were dissapointed that I've ruined their cool Jurassic Park fact.

  • 14
    Insects trapped in amber are real. You can buy them anywhere you buy amber. I doubt enough DNA would have survived to recreate their last meal, though.
    – NomadMaker
    Nov 13, 2020 at 1:19
  • 1
    I can't resist pointing out that the innumerable multitude of scams are all "smoke without fire"... I think that phrase simply doesn't contribute anything meaningful.
    – user21820
    Nov 13, 2020 at 17:00
  • @user21820 I do see your point, but I consider this site the place to go to settle such claims whether true, false, or we can't be sure, and considering Daniel Roseman's answer it would appear my friend likely sourced and muddled his "fact" from the documentary mentioned so there does seem to be some fire to it.
    – Ongo
    Nov 13, 2020 at 20:23

3 Answers 3


Your friend was perhaps thinking of The Amber Time Machine, a documentary that David presented, many years later, which did indeed talk about the creatures preserved in a block of amber he owned.

In the programme he referred to his brother's role in the film and discussed the possibility of extracting DNA as depicted there. However, I don't think there was any mention of the prop being inspired by the actual amber block.

Of course that idea of extracting DNA from insects embedded in amber came from the original book by Michael Crichton, which did not have any reference to either Attenborough.

  • 14
    Crichton didn't come up with the idea of extracting DNA from insects in amber. The idea has been circulating in the scientific community for some years before Crichton's novel was published in 1990.
    – Buzz
    Nov 12, 2020 at 20:11
  • 2
    @buzz would be interested in examples of that - the earliest example I know of is the Jurassic Park one, but that's probably because I didn't start my biology degree until a decade after it was published.
    – tardigrade
    Nov 13, 2020 at 9:01
  • Very interesting +1! If you manage to come across anything that either confirms or disproves that the prop was inspired by David's insects in amber I'd jump at the accept button, I'll probably accept anyway in time if no one else finds anything in terms of inspiration for the prop.
    – Ongo
    Nov 13, 2020 at 14:59

Insects in amber is very much a real thing.

A very big difference between fossils and amber-trapped matter is that the amber preserves the original materials, whereas a fossil completely replaces the original material with minerals. This allows for accurate isotope analysis, etc. It also gives a very good 3-d viewability of the object, as amber is conveniently very transparent.

But as for actual DNA extraction? That is not so easy. The DNA molecule is a ridiculously large, and rather fragile construct. The amber traps the material of the insect in place at the microscopic level, but there is very little actual preservation at the cellular and chemical level.

A couple of examples: An elephant mosquito from Poinar’s collection. Photo by George Poinar, Jr.

It's not just insects, small critters end up in the Amber, too.

enter image description here

And even pieces of larger animals. Here is an actual dinosaur tail, complete with feathers (yes, they had feathers).. pic from cnn, amber is of tail section belongs to a young coelurosaurian, amber from an amber market in northern Myanmar enter image description here

  • 4
    Coelurosauria is a clade that includes birds, the only living dinosaurs. However, this one probably wasn't a bird and probably didn't fly, is my guess.This amber sample is identified as DIP-V-15103. This article states it is "a non-avialan theropod". Nov 13, 2020 at 14:21
  • 4
    +1 for your wonderful research, but without linking to the movie's prop department and the inspiration for Hammond's cane I'm afraid I can't accept. Your answer seems to be more focused on the DNA extraction which isn't what I'm inquiring about.
    – Ongo
    Nov 13, 2020 at 15:01
  • 1
    @ongo because you focus on the mosquito, it is easy to assume your use of the word artifact in your bolded statement is actually meant to encompass more than just man-made objects.
    – Yorik
    Nov 13, 2020 at 16:45
  • 1
    Maybe the OP can clarify, but I got the impression that they are already aware that there are real insects caught in amber. What they are asking is if the cane in the movie is modeled after a specific piece of real life amber, or just a general reference to the many different samples that have been found.
    – Brady Gilg
    Nov 13, 2020 at 17:13
  • 1
    @Yorik I will edit my question to better reflect what I'm asking, thanks for the note, although this answer still deserves its upvotes for confirming that the prop is grounded in reality which is something of a prerequisite to my actual question.
    – Ongo
    Nov 13, 2020 at 20:26

Yes, inspired by a 1982 paper by George Poinar and Roberta Hess. Crichton even went to interview them and look at their lab.

And how did you eventually get involved with Jurassic Park?

From what I gather, from what Michael Crichton said, he had written Jurassic Park, but he hadn’t decided how he was going to get the dinosaur DNA, and when he read the paper on the fly in Baltic amber [paywalled - see images below], this gave him the idea that he would obtain it from mosquitoes that bit the dinosaurs.

So the film department called us and said they were doing this, and they wanted to come and film our lab. And then Michael Crichton contacted us separately and flew out, and we talked to him. Very nice, tall person. Then, that was it. The next thing we knew, the book was out and then the movie was out. We were quite surprised when we heard about all of the casting!

The Paleobiologist Who Inspired the Science in ‘Jurassic Park’

enter image description here

Images from POINAR, G. O., & HESS, R. (1982). Ultrastructure of 40-Million-Year-Old Insect Tissue. Science, 215(4537), 1241–1242.

  • 3
    Hi, welcome to the site. You could improve this answer by editing it to include relevant excerpts from the pages you linked to within your answer, so that it'll be preserved within this thread even if the links go down at some point. Jun 19 at 1:16
  • To be clear, there are many other finds in amber. It's simply that the above paper (on a fly in amber) is the one connected to the [Mr. DNA voice] "Dino DNA" mosquito-in-amber inspiration. Here is someone's subjective list of their take on top insect amber finds. Some of the other finds of Poinar are also included: eartharchives.org/articles/…
    – spacedweeb
    Jun 19 at 1:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.