Jurassic Park idea encased in Lebanon’s ambers

FANAR, Lebanon: A biting midge, now encased in amber, bit a dinosaur 135 million years ago in what is today the country of Lebanon.

Imagine if scientists could extract the dinosaur’s DNA from that amber, American University of Beirut professor Aftim Acra once asked his British colleague at the Natural History Museum of London in late 1970s.

His colleague was Paul Whalley, who worked with Acra after the latter’s discovery of the world’s oldest amber stones with biological inclusions in south Lebanon’s Jezzine. Their conversation on the possible extraction of DNA made its way to American writer Michael Crichton.

Impressed with the idea, Crichton wrote in 1990 one of his best-selling novels, Jurassic Park, which was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg several years later. A specimen from the lower cretaceous era preserved in one of the terrestrial ambers found in Jezzine was one of the elements that triggered Crichton’s imagination.

While many scientists claim today that extracting DNA from the amber is impossible, few continue to bet on future scientific breakthroughs.

Acra’s successor in Lebanon is a young professor at the Lebanese University. Paleontologist and entomologist Dany Azar hunts for ambers in Lebanon and around the world to give students a better understanding of what their country and the planet may have looked like millions of years ago.

For Azar, studying the findings encased in amber is like looking back in time.

“These ambers are like a window into the past ... In them we could see how species lived.”

“It’s brilliant how you can understand better the nature of our surroundings, the evolution of species, their past and how they came to look like the ones we have today,” Azar says.

Speaking to The Daily Star as he went through the amber stones at his offices at the Lebanese University on the outskirts of Beirut, Azar says ambers are a “national treasure” for Lebanon.

“The majority of ambers in the world are of marine type, but ambers we find in Lebanon are continental and that is what makes them unique,” the 39-year-old Azar says.

Recent archaeological discoveries show that amber was first collected by the Phoenicians, who traded it throughout the world in exchange for bronze. With the discovery of amber in the Baltic, Azar says the Phoenicians stopped trading amber from Lebanon and instead focused on the Baltic amber.

Amber outcrops cover about 10 percent of Lebanon’s territory and are found in many parts of the country.

Even after millions of years, one can see biological inclusions inside ambers in three dimensions.

“You can even see the insects’ behavior through the microscope,” Azar says.

Commenting on Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park, Azar says that it was “incorrect to call it Jurassic because the ambers discovered with biological inclusions back then were only from the Cretaceous era and not from the Jurassic era.”

“It would’ve been better if he called it the Cretaceous Park.”

When the resin falls from a tree on a living organism, it cuts the organism from oxygen. “The mixing of resin with humid soil preserves the biological inclusion by cutting out its oxygen and stopping its degradation.”

Like other researchers, Azar also believes that extracting DNA from fossilized amber is impossible. “The DNA cannot be preserved in these fossils, I’ve worked on this topic for at least six months and we were not able to reach any results.”

“It is too good to be true ... When you look closely to the biological inclusion, you will see that it is perfectly preserved but chemically it is no longer what it was before being trapped in amber,” Azar explains.

But he believes that the findings in ambers help to clarify key mysteries about evolution of the world’s species.

Recently, Azar found the oldest feather preserved inside an amber stone, contributing to theories held by scientists throughout the world today that most dinosaurs had feathers and the majority of them were not bigger than the size of a rooster.

Meanwhile, paleontologists and archaeologists are preparing for the Sixth International Congress on Fossil Insects that will be held in Jbeil, north of Beirut, next year.

As he continues to discover more amber to illuminate the story of the species trapped inside, Azar reminds us that dinosaurs are not necessarily extinct. Their descendants are still flying in the air.

“Not all dinosaurs were big as we have seen in many movies, birds are also dinosaurs.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 04, 2012, on page 2.




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