Science Rewrites the Past

Nancy Tirthani
Amber is one of the oldest gemstones known to mankind. It is yellow-red in colour. Since the day when it was first mined countless centuries ago, its yellow-red lustre has captivated the attention of men and women. Its finest pieces are worth their weight in gold. However, for modern-day researchers in the Life Sciences, amber in terms of its containing vital clues is priceless.

Amber is organic in origin. It consists of fossilized resins from many trees laid down between 40 million and 120 million years ago.

Conifers produced resin into whose soft and sticky surface were embedded pollen grains, seeds, the hair of mammals, etc, before it hardened. Then this resin slowly fossilized into amber preserving intact those imprisoned foreign elements into it.

Recent researches on amber have falsified many earlier theories about the evolution of specific animal groups. Recently, in New Jersey, USA, an object looking like a preserved bee was found in a yellow amber. However, this seemed impossible because this piece was 80 million years old, whereas the earliest known bees came from a time only 40 million years old. The second surprise was that the bee’ in the amber was stingless, because the evolution of the bees from sting-bearing to stingless is believed to be the recent one. It meant pushing the origins of the bee family to about 135 million years ago.

This meant the need of the revision by the botanists of the existing theories about the evolution of the flowering plants. Since bees could not exist without gathering pollen and nectar, the flowers could have evolved by 135 million years ago.

The bubbles trapped by a low-grade amber inside it for many millions of years mean the gases which had existed at that time. These could be analysed to determine the composition of our atmosphere when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Last year, Gary P. Landis of the US Geological Survey and Robert Bruce Berner of Yale University crushed ambers from the dinosaur age. They found that oxygen made up 30 per cent of air at that time than 21 per cent as today. Landis is sure of this fact as the air trapped in the amber’s resin indicates accurately that time when the pre-historic tree first exuded its resin. This would mean for the scientists to sample the air of the Earth’s atmosphere when the dinosaurs breathed.


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