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Astounding 49 Million-Year-Old Face of Spider Frozen in Amber

Scientists Recreate Huntsman Spider

This is Eusprassus crassipes, a fossil huntsman spider in almost 50 million-year-old Baltic amber (shown in inset), as revealed by modern techniques of X-ray computed tomography. (A. McNeal, University of Manchester)

It's a face only a mother spider could love. 

The latest computer-imaging technology has produce this stunning three-dimensional picture of a spider trapped for 49 million years in an opaque piece of fossilized amber resin.

University of Manchester researchers, working with colleagues in Germany, created the intricate images using X-ray computed tomography to study the remarkable spider, which can barely be seen under the microscope in the old and darkened amber.

Writing in the international journal Naturwissenscaften, the scientists showed that the amber fossil -- housed in the Berlin Natural History Museum -- is a member of a living genus of the Huntsman spiders (Sparassidae), a group of often large, active, free-living spiders that are hardly ever trapped in amber.

"More than 1,000 species of fossil spider have been described, many of them from amber," said David Penney, from Manchester's Faculty of Life Sciences. Some of the first fossil spiders ever analyzed over 150 years ago came from similar fossils, he explained. 

"These old, historical amber pieces have reacted with oxygen over time and are now often dark or cracked, making it hard to see the animal specimens inside," Penney explained. To work around that, an international team of fossil and living spiders experts used modern computer analysis to study the fossil.

"The results were surprising," Penney said. "Computed tomography produced 3D images and movies of astounding quality, which allowed us to compare the finest details of the amber fossil with similar-looking living spiders.

"We were able to show that the fossil is unquestionably a Huntsman spider and belongs to a genus called Eusparassus, which lives in the tropics and also arid regions of southern Europe today, but evidently lived in central Europe 50 million years ago.

"The research is particularly exciting because our results show that this method works and that other scientifically important specimens in historical pieces of darkened amber can be investigated and compared to their living relatives in the same way."