The blood of a monkey that lived 20 to 30 million years ago is teaching modern scientists about early primates, insects and diseases, thanks to an amber specimen purchased on eBay that was sent to the man who inspired “Jurassic Park.”
It’s one thing to find the fossilized remains of a dinosaur — humans are constantly digging into the earth, and those gigantic bones tend to attract attention. To find a fossilized insect, however, takes something special. Amber, the fossilized resin or sap of a tree, is the perfect substance in which to preserve tiny creatures. A wide variety of insects has been found preserved within amber.
The discovery of a blood-swollen tick preserved in a piece of amber mined in the Dominican Republic marks the first discovery of fossilized blood cells from a prehistoric mammal. The monkey’s blood was trapped within the tick, which was likely removed by another monkey and tossed into the tree, where it became stuck in sap and became fossilized and ultimately buried under layers of earth.
After it was found by miners, the amber landed in the hands of Vincent Calabrese, a scientist who sells specimens online. It was purchased by tennis player Alex Brown, a collector who happened to know a paleobiologist who specializes in amber. He popped the specimen in the mail to see what his expert friend would make of it.
George Poinar Jr., 79, a professor at Oregon State University, is considered the world’s foremost expert on insect specimens preserved in amber. Poinar discovered that the preservative qualities of amber are so great that not only is the form of a creature suspended in amber intact, but so are the intact cell organelles, such as nuclei, lipids, mitochondria, and even red blood cells. In fact, Poinar’s research on the topic has been so illuminative that his work caught the attention of science fiction author Michael Crichton, who needed a scientifically plausible route by which his scientist characters could obtain
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