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Amber Reveals Ancient Dinosaur Ecology

Oct 20, 2014 05:50 PM EDT

In a study that brings back flashes of "Jurassic Park," researchers are studying pieces of amber found buried with dinosaur skeletons. But rather than re-creating dinosaurs, lead author Ryan McKellar is using the tiny pieces of fossilized tree resin to reveal more about dinosaur ecology, new research describes.

There is still much to be learned about the world in which these now-extinct behemoths lived, but information gained from these amber pieces could start to fill in those gaps.

"Basically it puts a backdrop to these dinosaur digs, it tells us a bit about the habitat," McKellar said in a statement. "Just a few of these little pieces among the bones can show a lot of information."

For example, they can show what kinds of plants once flourished and what the atmosphere was like at the time the amber was formed.

The amber McKellar and his colleagues studied is called friable amber, which, as its name implies, is incredibly fragile and can easily crumble. This explains why the substance hasn't be pursued in the past.

But the research team studied them anyway, from fossils of the Late Cretaceous period found in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada. And though they are just millimeters wide, they hold an awful lot of clues into the past.

Before it hardened into amber, the sticky tree resin would often collect animal and plant material, like leaves and feathers. These contents, referred to as "inclusions," can tell scientists about environmental conditions, surrounding water sources, temperature, and even oxygen levels in the ancient environment.

And just like in "Jurassic Park," insects like mosquitos can even be found in the amber, trapped long ago by the sticky substance.

"When you get insects, it is like frosting on the cake - you can really round out the view of the ecosystem," McKellar added.

And thanks to advancements in processing techniques, McKellar and other scientists can continue to study this friable amber and start to close some gaps in the dinosaur past, especially regarding insect evolution.

McKellar and his team presented their findings Oct. 20 at the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting in Vancouver, Canada.

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