A HORDE of prehistoric creatures is sweeping across the United States. Most of them are no bigger than your little fingernail. Trapped in small lumps of a translucent, honey-coloured substance, they cannot harm humans - only wallets. The amber fossil's time has come.
Last week, amber was a cheap, fossilised resin used to make unpretentious jewellery. This week it is an expensive fossilised resin whose price has doubled and is still rising. This alchemy has been worked by the release of Steven Spielberg's film Jurassic Park, in which dinosaur blood taken from a fossilised mosquito in amber is used to clone a murderous new generation of giant reptiles.
'The main event is insects trapped in amber, which sell for up to dollars 30 each,' said Esther Swann, fossil and mineral buyer for the Nature Company, a California-based chain store. Bigger pieces, the size of a fist, will set you back at least dollars 2,000 ( pounds 1,300).
On US television shopping channels, the smallest, insect- less scrap sells for dollars 39.95. Last night one channel held a 'fossil night' when, between 6pm and 11pm, viewers were invited to buy specimens over the telephone.
Even though prices have doubled since the film opened in the US on 11 June, the Nature Company has sold almost all its stock. Prices threaten to rise further after severe flooding affected mines in the Dominican Republic, which supplies much of the amber.
There was more excitement last week when George Poinar, the University of California entomologist whose work on amber fossils partly inspired the film, reported that he had extracted genetic material from a weevil that coexisted with dinosaurs.
However, the material was weevil, not dinosaur blood, and researchers emphasise that they have no plans to clone dinosaurs, even if this were possible.
Most of the amber sold in the US is a mere 35 million years old to the 65 million years of Spielberg's nugget. There is a fly in the ointment - a pun whose time has come - for anyone hoping to make money selling Jurassic-age amber: it crumbles on exposure to light. 'It's just not commercial, 'said Ms Swann.
The great dinosaur shortage, page 2