Arachnids in Bitterfeld amber: A unique fauna of fossils from the heart of Europe or simply old friends?


Bitterfeld amber, sometimes referred to as Saxon or Saxonian amber, is a potentially significant but poorly known source of arthropod data for the Palaeogene of northern Europe. An important aspect is a long-standing controversy about the age of this amber: namely whether it is equivalent to, and perhaps merely a southerly extension of, the better-known Baltic amber, or whether it is a unique and geological younger deposit sampling a different fauna. Here, we briefly review the Bitterfeld arachnids with particular emphasis on how these data could be used to elucidate the age of this deposit. Five arachnid orders have been recorded from Bitterfeld amber: spiders (Araneae), acariform mites (Acariformes), parasitiform mites (Parasitiformes), harvestmen (Opiliones) and pseudoscorpions (Pseudoscorpiones). This is a lower diversity than Baltic amber, where scorpions (Scorpiones) and camel spiders (Solifugae) have also been recorded. Spiders are the most comprehensively studied group, with more than 75 described species. Other groups such as pseudoscorpions and mites appear to be very diverse, but are virtually undescribed. Morphological overlap is apparent in the arachnid fauna and 40 species are currently shared between Baltic and Bitterfeld amber whilst 50 species are unique to the Bitterfeld deposit. At the family level overlap is even higher, but in all groups Baltic amber appears more diverse than Bitterfeld. This overlap may be interpreted as evidence for temporal conspecifity of the Baltic and Bitterfeld ambers, albeit with the Bitterfeld and Baltic ambers possibly representing independent localities within a larger Eocene European amber area which also included the Rovno amber from the Ukraine. However, caution should be exercised because the taxonomic foundation for such assumptions is far from comprehensive, most of the material remains to be studied in detail using modern techniques of morphological reconstruction. There are further issues with date estimates because some arachnid groups show extraordinary morphological stasis over time, even at species level, which may bias the analyses available. Here, we review the available knowledge on Bitterfeld arachnids and discuss how a detailed assessment of this fauna, and other arthropod taxa, could be generated. Several natural history museums – including Hamburg and Berlin – as well as private collectors host major assemblages of Bitterfeld fossils which may help to clarify the debate about the age and provenance of the material, and the extent to which (morpho)-species were maintained both over geographical distances and potentially geological time.
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