In 2007 The Australian published the following:WHEN amber turned up on a remote beach on Queensland's Cape York Peninsula, a world authority was posted a sample.
"Apparently (the authority) sent it right back, saying: 'There is no amber in Australia, so don't bother me again,"' says paleontologist Sue Hand, from the University of NSW.
Thanks in good part to the curiosity and persistence of Cairns couple Beth Norris and Dale Wicks, who made the find, Dr Hand and a research team have won a $245,000 Australian Research Council Discovery grant to unearth the secrets of the country's first deposit of amber.
"The amber is basically a time capsule, it has preserved the biota (flora and fauna) of the cape," DrHand says.
A parasitic wasp, a long-legged fly and a spider are among the "inclusions" saved from the corrupting effect of oxygen as tree resin -- perhaps kauri gum -- underwent polymerisation.
Dramatic images, and new knowledge about the ecological past, could emerge once the sample is analysed by Australia's first synchrotron in Melbourne.
"This is quite amazing in terms of colour; it ranges from very pale lemon, through oranges and reds to deep blues," Dr Hand says.
She suspects it has been there 15 million to 20 million years; not as old, perhaps, as Baltic amber but true amber nonetheless.
Why amber hasn't been found before in Australia is something of a mystery. Also puzzling is the question of ownership.
"That's a tricky one," Dr Hand says. "Until we find the source, it's difficult to say."
The answer could be interesting, given the global market for amber as gemstones.
But science is the immediate priority. Dr Hand sees a one-off opportunity to study and catalogue a new deposit of amber before there is commercialisation.
Dr Hand and paleontologist Henk Godthelp will be heading back to Cape York next year. The team is cashed up and ready to hire three honours students and two doctoral students.
Amber is rare in the fossil record of Australia, but small amounts are known from the Cenozoic-aged coals and lignites in Victoria and Tasmania and from older Cretaceous sites. A fossil spider has also been described from fossil resin in Victoria. Despite these examples, when amber like material was discovered on a distant beach on Cape York in 2003, it was initially dismissed by some not so professional researchers as having been misidentified.
The amber from Cape York is translucent to opaque and comes in many colours, including red, yellow and fluorescent blue. Interestingly, some of the Cape York amber has been bored by molluscs, which indicates it has been in the sea for an extended period of time. It is possible that the source of the amber lies offshore in beds of sedimentary rock on the sea floor. The age of the amber also remains uncertain but, it is thought to be Miocene (23-5.3 million years ago).