CORVALLIS - About 130 million years ago, the country of Lebanon was a land of tropical forests, ferns and marshes. Dinosaurs and other reptiles roamed among buzzing insects, and ancient Kauri pine trees dripped golden sap. One day, a fly was trapped by that oozing sap and embalmed for eternity.
Today, that same fly, preserved in lifelike condition by the magic of amber, looks as if it could easily fly away if only someone would crack open the stone that imprisoned it. This, and dozens of other captives are now giving scientists an ancient insect collection and a fascinating look back in time.
The insects are the topic of a new book titled "Lebanese Amber: The Oldest Insect Ecosystem in Fossilized Resin," by George Poinar, Jr., a courtesy professor of entomology at Oregon State University. But that book in itself is only the latest footnote in the life of a scientist who has spent decades pursuing to many corners of the Earth this precious fossilized stone.
"As a precious stone amber was traded by the Phoenicians in Lebanon up to 5,000 years ago," Poinar said. "It's beautiful, and feels warm against the skin. Amber has been touted for its medicinal values, and in World War II was used as a conductor in some rockets. Its been used in fine art and sculpture. But for scientific purposes, it gives us a view of the past unlike anything else that exists."
Amber, in short, creates the world's most perfect fossils. It's an unusual stone that begins as sap flowing from some kinds of trees.
Sometimes insects, plants or other small animals become trapped in that sap, and preserved in near-perfect, three-dimensional condition. Over millions of years of hardening and fossilization, the resin eventually becomes amber and can be found in a very few areas around the world where the conditions were just right for its formation and preservation.
Poinar's new book explores the amber of Lebanon, which represents the oldest amber in the world that contains insect remains. The book can be obtained from the OSU Press, at 541-737-3166, or at the web site http://osu.orst.edu/dept/press.
"Part of what's amazing about amber is that the chemical properties of the resin which formed it act as a natural embalming agent, with both drying and anti-microbial properties," Poinar said. "Ancient Egyptians actually used pine resin as an embalming agent, and doctors in the Civil War, lacking anything else, would sometimes slap tree resin on a wound as a disinfectant and saved lives that way."
Using the clues provided by Lebanese amber, researchers can gain a much clearer view of the ecology of an era, its insects, other animal life, plants, seeds, flowers, forests and even climate. Other scientists constantly contact Poinar to see what clues his amber can provide about things they are studying - you can tell a lot about the carnivores of an era, for instance, by studying insects that feed upon them.
The preservation properties of amber are so spectacular that Poinar was able years ago to extract ancient DNA from some of his insect specimens. This 130 million-year-old DNA is quite damaged, but enough sequences can be identified in some instances to at least identify the insect it came from.
Poinar has been able to use ancient amber to learn much about the processes of animal development and evolution. The hundreds of insect species in ancient Lebanese amber are all now extinct, relics of Earth's history. But in some cases the genus - or group of closely related species - to which they belong still exists today, and can be tracked right through the amber fossil record. The genus for biting midges still exists, is 130 million years old and specimens can be found in Lebanese amber. By comparison, the genus for humans - Homo - is only four million years old.
The very process of collecting amber is not without its perils. Poinar's co-author on the new book, Raif Milki, often had to do his field collections in Lebanon traveling with soldiers, to avoid getting shot or being killed by land mines in that troubled region of the world.
Historically, possession and control of amber has often been a point of contention. Amber collectors along the Baltic Coast in medieval Europe were hung and their bodies left to rot as a warning to anyone presuming to poach in amber mines. A Russian art treasure, the sculptured "amber room," was stolen by German troops during World War II, lost on a sunken submarine, stolen again from the sunken sub by unknown pillagers and its whereabouts are still unknown to this day.
Poinar himself has been threatened and shooed away from some amber mines by armed residents who fiercely protected their local mine. And he was briefly held captive and then chased through the streets of Morocco by a knife-wielding man who masqueraded as an amber merchant but was apparently just a thief.
As a jewel, amber is considered a semi-precious stone and is used in affordable jewelry. But the fascination with the insects and other animals imprisoned in amber has now caught on among serious collectors, and such specimens bring the highest price of any amber stones - one large piece of amber with a lizard in it has been sold for $50,000.
George Poinar, 541-752-0917
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