SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

Frozen in time, 50 million years ago
Steve Connor
A collection of beautifully preserved bees, ants, spiders and other small prehistoric creatures that lived 50 million years ago have been unearthed in a huge amber deposit in India. Scientists said that the fossilised globules of tree resin have entombed a spectacular menagerie of insects that had survived the extinction of the dinosaurs and were living at a time before mammals had evolved.

 

Prof Yash Pal

Prof Yash Pal

This universe
Should the ceiling fan be kept on when we are using an air conditioner?
It depends on how much airflow you like in the room. If your air conditioner is sitting in a corner of the room and some parts remain warm, the fan might help to make the temperature more uniform. Keeping the fan on does not harm the air conditioner.

Trends
Struggling to track destruction of nature
LONDON: Scientists are struggling to get a full picture of the variety of wildlife species around the globe as climate change, human exploitation and pollution threaten "mass extinctions," a series of studies published on Wednesday showed.

Fresh clues about humans
Fifth of vertebrates face extinction
New monkey found in Myanmar

 


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Frozen in time, 50 million years ago
Steve Connor

A collection of beautifully preserved bees, ants, spiders and other small prehistoric creatures that lived 50 million years ago have been unearthed in a huge amber deposit in India.

Scientists said that the fossilised globules of tree resin have entombed a spectacular menagerie of insects that had survived the extinction of the dinosaurs and were living at a time before mammals had evolved.

The amber deposit is the first to be found in India and may be larger than the Baltic deposits - in Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Germany - which are the biggest in the world and have proved a rich source of the semi-precious gemstone for more than 200 years.

Amber forms when the soft, sticky sap of trees solidifies into hard lumps of resin which, when buried, become fossilised into a substance valued for its colour, translucence and natural organic beauty. The resin produced by the trees has antiseptic properties to protect the plant against attack from fungi and bacteria, a feature which also helps to preserve any insects or small animals that become trapped in the soft resin before it solidifies.

The new deposits, which the scientists have likened to a huge cache of herbal cough drops, were found in the open-cast coal mines of the Cambay region of north-west India.

The researchers said that an analysis of the amber shows that it was formed from the resin of a family of tropical hardwood trees that still exist in south-east Asia.

Insects found in Baltic amber are often empty shells because their inner, soft parts have dissolved away. However, scientists have found that the Indian amber preserves the insects intact, allowing the researchers to study them whole in fine detail.

"We are able to dissolve the amber and get the specimens completely out," said Professor Jes Rust of Bonn University in Germany, who led the team.

"This is really outstanding. It's like getting a complete dinosaur out of the amber and being able to put it under the microscope," Professor Rust said.

The story of a prehistoric mosquito that had just dined on the blood of a dinosaur before being trapped in tree resin formed part of the 1993 film Jurassic Park, based on the book of the same name by Michael Crichton, where dinosaur DNA is recovered from the insect and used to bring the giant creatures back to life. However, Professor Rust said that the possibility of getting any genetic material from the insects trapped in the Indian amber is next to zero.

"You will never find ancient DNA in amber. It is completely destroyed and deteriorates after a couple of hundred thousand years. Jurassic Park is wonderful science fiction," he said.

Nevertheless, the scientists have already found more than 700 specimens trapped in the Indian amber. They are mostly insects, such as ants, bees and termites, but they also include spiders, mites and parts of plants. One species of ant belongs to a genus that is only found alive today in Australia.

Dating of the coal seams where the amber was recovered shows that the trapped animals lived between 52 and 50 million years ago, when the Indian subcontinent was still an island that was moving at the relatively fast pace of 15 to 25 centimetres a year towards Asia, before colliding with the continent to form the Himalayas.

Already, the scientists have shown that the similarities of the species in the amber to species living in Asia and Europe have exploded a theory known as the "biotic island ferry", where India was thought to have carried much of its wildlife to Asia, where it then escaped to populate the Eurasian landmass.

"The idea is called the biotic 
ferry because India was isolated for millions of years after being 
connected to the ancient continent of Gondwanaland.

After the collision between India and Asia, its fauna was able to jump from India to Asia where it spread all over Europe," Professor Rust said. "What we found in this 52 million year old amber is that the insects contained in it already show close connections to European fauna of almost the same time.

"The amber shows, similar to an old photo, what life looked like in India just before the collision with the Asian continent. The insects trapped in the fossil resin cast a new light on the history of the sub-continent," he added.

Indian scientist Ashok Sahni 
from the University of Lucknow found the amber while looking for other fossils.

"He was digging for mammoth fossils and he came across these strange stones which be brought to Germany to show me because there were no amber specialists in India," Professor Rust said. "There is an enormous volume of amber to be found. This is just the beginning." 

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This universe

Should the ceiling fan be kept on when we are using an air conditioner?

It depends on how much airflow you like in the room. If your air conditioner is sitting in a corner of the room and some parts remain warm, the fan might help to make the temperature more uniform. Keeping the fan on does not harm the air conditioner.

Why does a fire glow more when we blow hard, especially since the gas that we exhale is carbon dioxide?

I like your question. You must have seen that to make the fire in the "chuhla" glow and burn better, we use a blowpipe or "phukani". This is not just to direct the air we breathe on to the fire. When we blow through the pipe with our lips compressed and with some force, this air creates a low pressure at the end of the pipe and lot of fresh air from outside is dragged on the "chuhla". That is the air that increases the supply of oxygen on the embers and makes them burn better. The effective air is not that which comes from our lungs. In fact, it is the air that that we never breathed in; it is that which is dragged in from the outside.

I have a problem related to the magnetic moment of neutron. Though neutrons are electrically neutral, they possess a spin magnetic moment. What is the reason of its non-zero value?

It is true that the neutron is neutral. But it is also a complex conglomeration in which some of the components do have charge. The charged component manifests itself through other means, including giving it a magnetic moment. Perhaps there is a more sophisticated argument to give you a proper answer, but this is all I can think of at the moment.

Is it true, as Einstein said, that the world would finish four years after the extinction of bees?

I have gone through the long list of plants that get their pollen with the help of honey bees for fertilising them for growth. From this it would appear that the plant growth in the world would be seriously affected if honey bees were to disappear. There is a feeling that this catastrophe in the plant world would be a serious danger to our life. I think Einstein would have projected its effect. This is not physics or mechanical world for which one may exactly calculate the future. But one should keep in mind that the world would not remain habitable after most of the plants disappear.

Readers wanting to ask Prof Yash Pal a question can e-mail him at palyash.pal@gmail.com

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Trends
Struggling to track destruction of nature

Research in Motion (RIM) President and co-Chief Executive Mike Lazaridis (L) and Adobe Chief Technology Officer Kevin Lynch demonstrate AIR and Flash content in the first live demo of the BlackBerry PlayBook at Adobe MAX developers conference in Los Angeles October 25, 2010.
Research in Motion (RIM) President and co-Chief Executive Mike Lazaridis (L) and Adobe Chief Technology Officer Kevin Lynch demonstrate AIR and Flash content in the first live demo of the BlackBerry PlayBook at Adobe MAX developers conference in Los Angeles October 25, 2010. Reuters

LONDON: Scientists are struggling to get a full picture of the variety of wildlife species around the globe as climate change, human exploitation and pollution threaten "mass extinctions," a series of studies published on Wednesday showed. The 16 studies in a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in London said science had an incomplete record of species from animals to plants and microbes at a time when they may be dying out faster than ever before.

Fresh clues about humans

CHICAGO: Early data from the 1,000 Genomes Project, an international effort to build a detailed map of human genetic variation, is already offering new clues about human disease, including why some people are more severely affected by disease than others. Dr. Evan Eichler of the University of Washington in Seattle and colleagues used findings from the pilot phase of the project to identify subtle differences among people in areas of the genome where DNA sequences are often repeated many times.

Fifth of vertebrates face extinction

NAGOYA, Japan: About a fifth of the world's vertebrates are threatened with extinction, a major review has found, highlighting the plight of nature that is the focus of global environment talks underway in Japan. The study by more than 170 scientists across the globe used data for 25,000 species from the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of threatened species and examined the status of the world's mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fishes.

New monkey found in Myanmar

OSLO: A new type of snub-nosed monkey has been found in a remote forested region of northern Myanmar which is under threat from logging and a Chinese dam project, scientists said on Wednesday. They said hunters in Myanmar's Kachin state said the long-tailed black monkey, with white-tufted ears and a white beard, could often be tracked in the rain because its upturned nostrils made it prone to sneezing when water dripped in. Reuters

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