"Jewel of the Earth"
February 14th, 2006
February 14th, 2006
NARRATOR: Amber: its jewel-like beauty has held humans spellbound for thousands of years, but inside an even greater treasure glows.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: It's hard to imagine a more perfect time capsule than this. This little bee has been trapped in there for literally millions of years.
NARRATOR: Suspended in time, these tiny prisoners have tales to tell of a world that belonged to the dinosaurs, of enemies long extinct, of supercontinents that no longer exist. Now scientists can peer deeper into these time machines than they ever did before, opening the door to the unthinkable, bringing dinosaurs back to life.
DAVID GRIMALDI (American Museum of Natural History): I was astounded at the possibility of DNA being preserved.
ROBERTA POINAR (Oregon State University): Every once in a while, in your life, you witness something that's just too spectacular for words, and this was one of the times.
NARRATOR: Host David Attenborough takes you on a quest for amber. Jewel of the Earth, right now on NOVA.
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Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, serving society through biomedical research and science education: HHMI.
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DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: There is a substance so strange and so beautiful that whenever people encountered it, they thought they had found something magical. And its magic is real, because this material has traveled through time, bringing with it passengers from the distant past that have wonderful tales to tell.
This extraordinary substance has fascinated me since I first held a piece, this piece, when I was 12. My first piece of amber arrived in a very unexpected way.
In 1938, during the build up to the Second World War, my parents helped some of the many children fleeing from Germany. They had left their families behind and were allowed to bring almost nothing with them. I remember one girl, in particular. Her name was Marianne. She was 12, about the same age as I was, and she came from a city on the Baltic coast where her father was a doctor.
He had given her one small but precious thing, as a sign of his thanks to whoever it was who was going to look after his daughter. And this is it. It felt surprisingly warm and light in my hand, but what made me fall in love with amber was what I discovered inside it. I found something miraculous.
There were insects preserved in astonishing detail. I burned with questions. What sort of world were they from? They must have lived a long time ago, but how long? Years later, my brother Richard would play a scientist in a movie which made amber famous the world over.
RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH (Actor/John Hammond in clip from "Jurassic Park"): Welcome to Jurassic Park.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Richard's character extracted DNA from dinosaur's blood trapped in amber and, with it, brought dinosaurs back to life. Could that ever be done?
SAM NEILL (Actor/Dr. Alan Grant in clip from "Jurassic Park"): How did you do this?
RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH (Actor/John Hammond in clip from "Jurassic Park"): I'll show you.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: I started my journey with the amber time machine by taking Marianne's gift back to where it came from, to the shores of the Baltic Sea.
The amber comes from rocks on the seabed, some distance out from the coast, but people don't find it until it washes up on the shore. Little bits like this are quite common. Sometimes, if you are lucky, particularly after a storm, you can find bigger bits. Some even have barnacles still attached to them. People have been collecting such bits for thousands of years but had no idea how amber originated. Some said it was solidified sunshine, some that it was the tears of the gods.
Then, around the year 77 A.D., a great Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, conducted a simple experiment. He did this.
The smell? Unmistakable: pine resin.
Several types of plants, among them conifers, seal any wound inflicted by storms or insect attack, by producing a sticky resin which oozes out from them. And because it continues to gently flow around whatever it traps, it can preserve creatures in the finest detail. As the resin hardens around its captives, they become suspended in time.
Of course, many creatures are fossilized in rock, like this small flat fish, for example. It's a kind of ray. It was squashed, its soft parts decayed, even its little spines turned into rock.
But amber preserves creatures in a quite different fashion. When this little bee touched this drop of resin she was caught by its stickiness, and she was instantly and perfectly preserved in three dimensions. These eyes saw a world which existed long before mankind evolved. She scented flowers before the first human being ever smelled one. And I can even tell that she was working hard when she died, by the bundles of cargo on her hind legs.
It's hard to imagine a more perfect time capsule than this. This little bee has been trapped in there for, literally, millions of years.
Amber's ability to travel through time can take us back into more recent history, our history. Stonehenge is one of the earliest man-made structures in the world. These stones have been standing here for something like three and a half thousand years, and we know that, even then, the people who erected them treasured amber.
But they weren't the first. It was considered to be precious way back in the Stone Age, and this may be why. When you scrape its rough surface, with a flint blade, perhaps, you quickly reveal the wonderful golden color inside. It's quite magical.
Stone Age people also carved bone and stone in order to make tools, but amber was different. It seemed to have had no practical use, so they must have valued it for some other reason.
The carvings they made, around 10,000 years ago, give us an idea of how they viewed the world, and, in particular, which animals mattered most to them. Imagine the value of amber to a Stone Age hunter who believed that capturing an animal's spirit by carving it in amber made the animal itself easier to hunt.
The people who built the great stone circle at Stonehenge lived in the Bronze Age, several thousand years later, but they, too, treasured amber. None but the wealthiest of them could afford a material as rare as this.
Once, there were a thousand beads in this necklace. Over 3,000 years, their surfaces have become opaque and crumbly. But when they were new, and freshly polished, and glowing, it must have been a wondrous piece of jewelry.
One woman's grave contained a rather more mysterious object, a disc of amber, now browned with age, encircled by gold. It was certainly a remarkable piece of personal decoration, but maybe it had a rather deeper significance.
The sun is central to our understanding of Stonehenge. The monument may have been used as a solar calendar, and it may be that its builders treasured amber, because it captured the warmth and the light of the sun. It may or may not have been considered magical in prehistoric Britain, but it was most certainly rare, for it came from far away.
This is the Baltic city of Gdansk, in Poland. The jewelry worn by the people of Stonehenge, and buried with them, came from around here. It is evidence of one of the world's first long distance trade routes.
But what brought the big boom in amber was the rise of Imperial Rome. The Romans bought it for prestige. Amber carvings cost more than the best slaves, and even the emperor Nero treasured it. He decorated his amphitheaters with tons of it, to show how unbelievably wealthy he was.
So Baltic amber can take us back at least 10,000 years into our own past, but it reaches back much further than that.
To find out how far, I went to one of the Gdansk workshops where amber jewelry is made, to meet Elzbieta Sontag.
ELZBIETA SONTAG (University of Gdansk): ...very thin, it's most probably with inclusion inside.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Elzbieta is a biologist who comes here to look for "inclusions," animals and plants trapped in the amber.
It takes a practiced eye to search through as much raw amber as this, and I was delighted to get a lesson from the expert.
How do I start? I mean, there are a million pieces, all right a thousand pieces. What...is there a particular color I should look for?
ELZBIETA SONTAG: Sometime color yes, because white and milky is without inclusion.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Are they good?
ELZBIETA SONTAG: No.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Oh. That's bad?
ELZBIETA SONTAG: It's bad.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Okay, I'm not interested in that.
ELZBIETA SONTAG: Okay, I avoid it, that kind of color.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: So what do I...
ELZBIETA SONTAG: I'm looking for transparent.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Would that one be any good?
ELZBIETA SONTAG: Yes. I think, yes. We can split it.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Ah, really?
ELZBIETA SONTAG: Oh, yes.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: And...
ELZBIETA SONTAG: And may be something is inside.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: How many pieces do you look at before you find something?
ELZBIETA SONTAG: Oh, about 20.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Twenty. Eleven...
ELZBIETA SONTAG: Not good, shape is not good.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Why is it the wrong shape? Twelve.
ELZBIETA SONTAG: Next one...
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Thirteen...spit...there's a lot of bubbles. Fourteen...
ELZBIETA SONTAG: Wow! Oh, no. Maybe.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Fifteen, nothing. Yes, I think so, 16. It's a mosquito.
ELZBIETA SONTAG: No mosquito, midges.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Oh, but this is beautiful. The midge looks as though it took off from its twig only yesterday. But, amazingly, it has been frozen in flight for around 40 million years.
So what about the creatures in my piece? What exactly were they? I could see them clearly, for Elzbieta's microscope had a projection screen.
Oh, well that's an old friend, because it's quite big and it's near the surface, and I've known it for a long time. So it's a fly but what kind of a fly?
ELZBIETA SONTAG: It's a long-legged fly.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: A long-legged fly? And in what part of the forest do they live?
ELZBIETA SONTAG: Low on the forest. Sometimes sit on the bark.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: So the likelihood is, then, that this fly, and therefore this piece of amber, this gum, this resin, was low down on the tree.
ELZBIETA SONTAG: Yes, low down on the floor.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Okay, what else is there?
With her powerful microscope, Elzbieta was exploring far deeper into my amber than I had been able to do, and there she found another fly, a fungus gnat. It must have died searching for rotten wood, for that is where it lays its eggs.
Then Elzbieta found an aphid and, right above it, an ant. Perhaps they had fallen together from a leaf where they were feeding. I think that's a fantastic picture. I mean, I...and it's deep in the amber. I know, because I've never seen it like this before.
But the last animal she found was the most surprising. Ah, what a monster! What is it?
ELZBIETA SONTAG: There is a mite.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: A mite.
ELZBIETA SONTAG: Yes, a very small monster.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Yes. That's tiny though, isn't it? How big is that?
ELZBIETA SONTAG: That one? Half a millimeter.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Half a millimeter.
I've never seen it before. So we've got a whole community-and we know that they all lived together because, because they all died together-in my one piece of amber. And that alone has given us a whole rounded picture of a tiny little ecosystem, at the bottom of a tree, 40 million years ago.
ELZBIETA SONTAG: Exactly.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Amazing. Thank you very much.
It had taken me more than 60 years to find and identify all the animals inside my amber. And seeing them together had given me something more, a glimpse of their world.
By comparing many amber animals to modern forms, scientists like Elzbieta are sure that the forest they inhabited was a temperate one. But how broad a picture can these time travelers give us? Could it encompass a whole forest or even a whole continent?
Well, in the 1960s, on a Caribbean mountainside, science discovered a new source of amber which seemed perfectly suited to answer those questions. I had a chance to visit it 15 years ago. I hoped that for the first time, I, myself, might collect some amber.
Here in the Dominican Republic, amber is mined. And by dating the mudstones that contain it, we can tell that it is about 20 million years old, rather younger than Baltic amber.
Picking a piece of amber from the mudstones in which it has lain for so long was hugely exciting. I brought a small collection back home with me. So what kind of forest did this amber come from? Well thanks to some remarkable detective work, we can answer that question in amazing detail.
In this piece, there's a leaf from the plants that produced the amber. And this is what those plants looked like. They were giant bean trees. But what matters most about them is not what they looked like but where they grew. They were tropical.
Scientists had long imagined that the ancient tropical forests contained a vast diversity of life, but very few fossilized traces had ever been found, until they discovered these.
Dominican amber preserves such a huge variety of animals and plants, with such perfection, that it inspired two scientists, George and Roberta Poinar, to try something that had previously been thought impossible. In the same way that Elzbieta reconstructed the world around a single Baltic tree, they started to use these tiny fossils to bring a whole tropical forest back to life.
I had found a piece which contained a little bee. She must have been familiar with many of the plants in that forest, indeed she depended on them. So, based on the Poinar's findings, and with a little bit of amber magic, we can follow her back home.
This tiny flower shows that the amber trees were not the only giants reaching up into the forest canopy. It belonged to a sebo, whose great trunk is supported by wide buttress roots.
But the commonest flowers of all came from a different tree, the nazareno. It seems likely that these trees dominated the forest canopy. When one of these giants fell, it would have opened up a light gap, which other, faster-growing plants could fill, plants like palms.
And here are their flowers, confirming that palms were another key element of that forest.
So we have built up a picture of what part of the forest was like and even identified some of the flowers which might have tempted my bee. But I don't think she died collecting nectar.
She was searching the forest for something else. Remember those bundles on her back legs? They are clues to what she was after. She was collecting resin, and not just any resin, but resin from the amber trees themselves. And that was a very dangerous thing to do. She was a stingless bee, very skilled at handling resin. Even so, there was a real chance that while collecting it, a bee might get stuck. Stingless bees are among the most common animals trapped in Dominican amber. Why did they take the risk?
Resin is very valuable to these bees. Mixed with plant waxes and fibers, it makes a strong building material for their nests. But it also brings another benefit. It contains antibiotics which disinfect the wounds in the bark of the tree from which it oozes. By bringing it here, into the nests, the bees protect their developing young from infection.
So now we know exactly what this little bee was doing in that forest 20 million years ago. This piece of amber has not only trapped her body, it also caught her behavior. And we know from other pieces of amber, too, that she had enemies.
This is an assassin bug. It hunts stingless bees, and their addiction to resin makes it easy for it to find them. The bug can't move swiftly enough to snatch a bee from midair, but it's strong enough to pull off strands of resin. With these sticky gloves it can hold on to any bee which touches them. It's using resin to set a trap. Now the assassin stabs its dagger-like mouthparts into a weak point behind the bee's head and injects its saliva, paralyzing the bee. As she dies, she releases a pheromone, a scent calling for help, which normally rallies other bees to defend the nest, and that entices them into the assassin's reach.
But one assassin lost its grip and now lies in amber, together with its victim. Once small animals like this were in the resin's grip they were as doomed as flies on fly paper. But, even so, amber sometimes contains animals that, normally, would never go near it.
How can George Poinar explain his next discovery? It was an amber tadpole. It couldn't have come into contact with resin underwater, yet when he looked further, he found other pond animals: a young marsh beetle, even a diving beetle.
The challenge was to explain how they had found their way into a flow of resin on the trunk of a tree. This is a poison dart frog. She is only half the size of your thumb, and, remarkably, she is carrying a tadpole on her back. She moves in a very determined and purposeful way, and starts to climb a tree.
These are what she is looking for: plants that collect water, called tank bromeliads. No one has yet found a piece of a bromeliad in amber, but we know they were there because there are amber damselflies of a kind which today lays its eggs between the tightly packed leaves of bromeliads.
She's reached a branch. Her tadpole will soon have a nursery. She lowers her rear end into the bromeliad's pond.
Other animals also lived in these tiny ponds. Up here they may have been safe from predators but not, it seems, from resin. So bromeliads held tiny complete worlds high up above the ground, but, even so, they probably didn't contain enough food to sustain a fast growing tadpole. What, then, did it eat? Amazingly the piece of amber that held the tadpole also contained the answer.
Poison dart frogs are very attentive parents. Every few days the tadpole's mother climbs back up the tree to the bromeliad to care for her youngster. She's laying an egg. That's what the other object was in the amber. These eggs are sterile and don't grow into frogs, they are food. But occasionally these little worlds up in the branches were shattered. And at least one falling tadpole came to a sticky end.
Who would have thought that amber could reveal such intimate details of life in tiny ponds high up in such trees as these?
But what about the bigger animals of the forest? Amber surely can't tell us anything about the presence or absence of these. Or can it?
Remarkably, amber does contain evidence of one such creature, thanks to some very oddly shaped seeds. These are the seeds of a kind of bamboo. The hooks on them get stuck in the hairs of animals so that the seeds travel with them and so are dispersed. But what sort of animals carried these seeds? Well, sometimes such seeds have hairs still attached to them, and the only animals with hairs are mammals.
There were certainly a number of mammals around 20 million years ago, but can these hairs help us to be a little more specific as to which mammals were here? They can.
The shape of the scales on the surface of hairs varies, and George Poinar used them to narrow down the possibilities. They came from some kind of carnivore.
It seems there were big cats in the ancient forest. Perhaps they even hunted the ancestors of modern coatis. So that's one more animal that I know that lived in that forest, but what about organisms for which there is not even a hair to serve as evidence?
Amber really is astonishing, because, as well as carrying animals' bodies through time, it can bring clues to their relationships. And that is what makes me certain that the forest contained enormous fig trees like this, although no trace of such a tree has yet been found in amber.
Let me explain. George Poinar found the crucial evidence. Exhibit A: a minute wasp. This wasp proves that the forest had figs, but to find out what makes it such a conclusive witness, we need to see what goes on today, inside the figs themselves. Although they look like fruit, figs are really containers for the tree's flowers and its developing seeds. But some also house wasps. Fig wasps spend almost all their lives inside figs, which are sealed so nothing but a fig wasp can collect their pollen. And that is how the wasps repay the fig trees for providing their nursery, by distributing their pollen.
These two organisms have come to rely on each other so closely that it's impossible for one to exist without the other. That is why a single wasp can guarantee that the forest contained fig trees. The partnership between figs and wasps is one of the most intimate in the whole of nature.
But that piece of amber had something else to reveal, something that was rather more sinister. The rear end of the wasp is surrounded by minute nematode worms. As the wasps emerge inside a fig, so do these nematodes. Each has just a few minutes to find a wasp and burrow into its body before it leaves the fig. But these are not conventional parasites. The only thing they will take from the wasps is a free ride to the next fig. Only amber could have preserved such minute details and, with them, revealed an extraordinary fact.
The relationship between the forest's fig trees, their wasps and worms, that we know today, clearly existed 20 million years ago. Amber, again and again, demonstrates this constancy.
Take this, for example. It looks like a death scene, a scale insect in the jaws of a predatory ant. But the truth is very different. Scale insects drink the stress, anxiety or panic of pods, but this takes time. Predators would soon pick them off, if it wasn't for the teams of ant bodyguards that protect them. And in exchange, the ants receive a share of the sap. By providing ants with food that they can't otherwise reach, the scale insects have made themselves indispensable. This relationship was so important that, far from eating her captive, this queen ant was gently carrying it away, so it would set up a new colony beside her own. And for 20 million years neither partner has had any reason to change.
What does this astonishing absence of change imply? If conditions had altered radically, many of these complex relationships would have disappeared. So their presence tells us that tropical forests must have existed, largely unchanged, for at least 20 million years.
But now George Poinar has traveled back even further in time. One of his latest finds in Dominican amber takes us back not just 20 million years, but 150 million, for it has implications about the Earth's geological history. And this startling new evidence comes from a single ant.
I have come across its modern relatives myself, and their behavior can tell us something unexpected about the Dominican amber forest. They are honeypot ants whose workers have become jars in which the colony stores honey to help it through times when liquid and nectar are scarce in the dry season.
So this amber honeypot ant suggests that the ancient forest also had a dry season. And if the modern ants are anything to go by, then it lasted around three to four months.
So, now, amber can tell us how often it rained 20 million years ago. But it is also evidence of an event that occurred even further back in time, because the living honeypot ants I found don't occur in the Dominican Republic or even in South America; they live in Australia.
So these little ants are evidence not only of climate, but the fact that once Australia and South America were joined together in one supercontinent. Who would have thought a single ant could tell us so much?
The amber time machine could hardly illuminate a more global event than the drift of continents, but it can also take us to the opposite extreme. What surprises might we find inside an amber animal?
Dr. David Grimaldi, of the American Museum of Natural History, is especially interested in lizards. These Anolis lizards are very territorial and the males take great risks to secure a patch of bark for themselves. They spend a lot of time displaying aggressively to one another, doing press-ups and erecting their throat flaps. And sometimes they fall. A few have achieved fame and immortality in amber, but such specimens are very rare, and not surprisingly. A lizard should be strong enough to unstick itself from a flow of resin. But some did not, and that puzzled David Grimaldi.
He wondered whether they could be as well-preserved inside as they were outside. Could he actually look inside an amber lizard? He turned to the latest high tech scanners.
DAVID GRIMALDI: These are scans that use very high intensity x-rays that are too high for medical purposes, and we have incredible detail in any view that we want. This scan of a gecko's head shows the finest details of its skull and even its teeth. Amber's preservation is clearly more than skin deep but nothing in this scan could explain why this gecko was trapped.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: So David Grimaldi turned to another gecko and looked at its whole body, this time with conventional x-rays.
DAVID GRIMALDI: The x-ray revealed that the bones were beautifully preserved. Bones of the skull, delicate little toe bones, bones of the leg and even individual vertebrae are revealed. But, from the jumble of bones, it is clear that the gecko's back was broken. It had probably been picked up and dropped, perhaps by a bird of prey. It didn't escape from the resin because, when it hit it, it was already dead.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: As researchers started finding even smaller internal details preserved by amber, they began to ask themselves something almost unthinkable. Could amber have preserved molecular structures inside an animal? Perhaps even its DNA? Some people even imagined that such DNA could bring monsters back to life. And look where that got us. But there are no remains of dinosaurs in amber. Surely their DNA is beyond our reach.
The Poinars dared to wonder if that was so. The story begins 20 years ago, when Roberta first focused an electron microscope on an amber animal. Inside a fungus gnat, like the one in my piece of Baltic amber, she discovered something quite amazing.
ROBERTA POINAR: It's like a miracle. Every once in a while, in your life, you witness something that's just too spectacular for words, and this was one of the times.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: The Poinars had found 40-million-year-old cells, and more than that, even the minute structures inside the cells were clear to see.
GEORGE POINAR (Oregon State University): We were kind of flabbergasted that it was possible to have such a degree of preservation after such a long time.
ROBERTA POINAR: And so I, you know, zoomed on up to a higher magnification and just was amazed to see that there were nuclei with bits of chromatin in the nucleus. And that is the step that led us to believe that DNA was there, in the cell, and could, perhaps, be pulled out and looked at.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: It was an astonishing discovery. The prospect of finding such ancient DNA electrified the scientific community. And Hollywood wasn't far behind. The storyline of Jurassic Park is very ingenious. My brother, who played the scientist, didn't actually need to find bits of dinosaur in amber. Nature had already extracted their DNA in blood cells and preserved it inside an amber mosquito. But that's pure fiction isn't it?
DAVID GRIMALDI: Surely it is impossible to recover DNA from any animal which lived in the distant past.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Well, two teams set out to attempt exactly that. One of them included David Grimaldi. The other was set up by the Poinars. Both knew that their only chance of finding DNA was in the best-preserved animals, so the Poinars chose to use my favorites, some stingless bees, while the other team decided to work on an amber termite.
DAVID GRIMALDI: We had no expectations-at least I didn't-when we did the study. We did the extractions. We tried it. Several of the extractions were unsuccessful.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: But then both teams struck gold. Tissue extracted from the Poinar's bees tested positive for DNA, and David Grimaldi got the same result from the termite.
DAVID GRIMALDI: Our first reaction, particularly mine, was really disbelief. I was astounded at the possibility of DNA being preserved.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: It really was astounding. They were claiming to have recovered DNA from animals which had died 20 million years before; not yet as old as the dinosaurs, but that's what a new team, including the Poinars, turned to next. And when they said what they had found, they caught the attention of the world. They had DNA from an insect older than T. Rex. So could Hollywood possibly have got it right?
GEORGE POINAR: We felt that bringing back an entire dinosaur was not in the realm of possibility, at this time.
DAVID GRIMALDI: Barraged with the common question, when are you going to clone extinct organisms, we constantly had to repeat ourselves: "We are not going to do that."
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: But why not?
DAVID GRIMALDI: If DNA is indeed preserved in amber, it is so chopped up, so fragmentary, that it is impossible to reconstruct the entire genome and then insert it into some surrogate organism, and then have a complete resurrected extinct species out of that. That is absolutely impossible.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: As the blaze of publicity surrounding the film faded, so other scientists tried to extract DNA from amber insects. And their results, when they were published, were bad news for the Poinars and David Grimaldi. None of them had found even a trace of ancient DNA. But what went wrong?
DAVID GRIMALDI: What some of them found, in fact, were contaminant DNA sequences. And I have to admit, by that point, that I was pretty much convinced that the original reports of DNA sequences in amber were of contaminant DNA.
GEORGE POINAR: And some of the scientists that did make an attempt got all kinds of strange things. They would get fish DNA. Well, perhaps they had a tuna fish sandwich that day and were careless.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Like most other researchers, David Grimaldi has changed his mind. But George Poinar is still confident that a few rare pieces of amber do contain DNA. And some insects certainly could have drunk the blood of dinosaurs.
These sandflies have been preserved in amber for 100 million years. Who knows what might be inside them?
And that is why amber fascinates me so much. It has brought us so many surprises. The prospect of it preserving DNA brought dinosaurs back, at least in our imaginations. And the creatures that traveled in it through time bring us vivid snapshots of the Caribbean forest as it was 20 million years ago. And my piece of Baltic amber, the first I ever owned, has preserved creatures with such perfection that they are still startlingly beautiful.
What a journey amber has taken me on! And it all came from a gift from a small girl over 60 years ago. I imagine Marianne and her father found my piece of amber by walking along a Baltic shore, just as thousands of people had done before them. Its magic may not extend to recreating a dinosaur, but, for me, amber remains a substance of wonder, a time machine that can show us exactly how some things looked tens of millions of years ago.
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