Amateur finds insect from dinosaur days

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The Independent Online
STEVE CONNOR

Science Correspondent

An amateur fossil collector has discovered Britain's first native insect- in-amber, which dates back to the early days of the dinosaurs, some 130 million years ago.

The amber - fossilised tree resin which trapped and preserved prehistoric insects - is the second-oldest insect-in-amber in the world, being about five million years younger than amber specimens which have been found in Lebanon.

Scientists hope to analyse the genetic material of the insect and any microbes that lived in its intestines to study the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of ancient lifeforms, a technology which was made famous by the dinosaurs movie Jurassic Park.

The collector, Gavin Leng, was searching for dinosaur bones on the heavily eroded coast of the Isle of Wight when he stumbled across dark and murky- looking amber that he gave to his sister to polish for her jewellery collection. It was then that they discovered it contained an insect and sent it to the local museum on the island, which asked Ed Jarzembowski, an amber expert and keeper of natural history at the Maidstone Museum and Art Gallery, Kent, to identify it.

Dr Jarzembowski said that he had so far identified a wasp, midges and a spider from several pieces of amber from the Isle of Wight.

The amber, he said, is clearly different from that usually found in Britain. It is not native but has been washed ashore from ancient undersea riverbeds originating in the Baltic region.

The British amber is darker, less translucent and more brittle, Dr Jarzembowski said. ''This is essentially because it is about 100 million years older than Baltic amber.''

Dr Jarzembowski said there is ''absolutely no doubt whatsoever'' about the 130-million year age of the British amber, because the geology of the area is so well understood.

The Isle of Wight's insects-in-amber come from a geological feature called the Cretaceous Wealden Beds, which stretch across much of southern English counties and into Belgium and Germany.

Because the Wealden dates back to the end of the Jurassic period, about 145 million years ago, Dr Jarzembowski hopes to find even older insects- in-amber to beat the world record for the oldest amber fossil.

Analysing the DNA of the British amber insects may be done by Raul Cano, the scientist at the California State University at San Luis Obispo who last month announced that he had brought bacteria trapped in amber back to life after being dormant for millions of years.

''We're in touch with Dr Cano and he's welcome to try but we won't open up an amber insect until we have found duplicates,'' Dr Jarzembowski said.

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