Thursday, January 20, 2011

OMG SHINY! - Amber.

In Jurassic Park, many a giant thunderlizard was brought back from the stony grave using ancient dinosaur blood. The idea was that mosquitoes preserved in amber would have well-preserved dinosaur blood, and thus DNA viable for cloning, in their bodies. This is bull; the DNA would likely be mixed with the blood of several other animals, including the mosquito herself. Even with frogs to fill in the gaps, there would have been more problems with resurrecting dinosaurs via mosquitoes than just the chaos theory. 

Now for the burning question: How did a bug get into a stone in the first place?

Like pearls, amber has an organic source: Tree resin (not sap). Amber, which has been used in jewelry and folk medicine since the Neolithic, is really fossilized tree resin. Besides being a valuable find for both science and fashion, amber has also been used as perfume; if your amber piece does not give off the scent of Pine-Sol when burned, it's fake (and probably smells a lot nastier).

Amber usually comes from trees similar to either the Australian Agathis evergreens or American Hymenea legumes. Although this may look restrictive, bear in mind that Mesozoic botanical distribution was very different from what it is today. Amber can be found in many sediments from when dinosaurs roamed the earth, dating from the Jurassic to Cretaceous and not giving a flip about where its relatives wound up. (There are quite a few earlier amber deposits, but nobody knows what strange plants made them. They are nonetheless valuable scientific discoveries.) Today, most (around 90%) of the world's extractable amber can be found in Russia and the Dominican Republic (one of the only sources of blue amber).

 In Soviet Russia, amber discovers you!

Real amber usually yields interesting finds. The level of preservation via amber is exceptional; liquid water and whole animals have been found in amber. Amber thus allows paleontologists to get a better look at ecology during the time of the dinosaurs; remember, microfauna, flora, and insects are huge in ecosystems. One bad mosquito bite could have killed Barney (not that we would know anything about that).

Ever since people have been picking up shiny stones, amber has been given special treatment. It has been used as jewelry, perfumes, medicine, and even as a flavoring in liquor. Pliny the Elder was one of the first to theorize that amber had once been liquid; given that there are many ways to return amber to a liquid state, there should be no surprises that the thought was floating around.

Even though amber is very cool and this entry only scratches the surface of its awesomeness, it still cannot resurrect dinosaurs. Don't hold your breath on that one...oh, and using frogs instead of birds to fill in the gaps in dino DNA was stupid, too.

Unless it was -this- frog. No, wait, that's still stupid.

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