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Paleontologists Face Hurdle Hunting Dinosaur Amber In Myanmar

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Paleontologists who are benefitting from Myanmar's amber trade face hurdles as the region sees a conflict between the army and Kachin rebels fighting over sovereignty.

The ancient Chinese and Greeks historically made amber popular as a gemstone. The fossilized tree resin has since been famous for its color and appearance.

By 1990's, interest in amber shifted from pure ornamentation to being lucrative collections because of the movie Jurassic Park. In the movie, dinosaurs were cloned by using DNA extracted from mosquitoes preserved in ambers.

In real life, ambers acquired in Myanmar date back from the Cretaceous Period, and ancient species dating from up to 100 million years ago were found fossilized in tree resins from the region. Paleontologists discovered unknown species for several times.

In the past years, ambers found in the region turn up fossilized ancient baby birds, bird wings, numerous insects, velvet worms, and aquatic spiders.  Most recently, a tick wrapped in spider silk for the last 100 million years was found, as well as four ancient frog species. 

While ambers are found in different locations around the world, the ones found in Myanmar, particularly in Kachin state, are "irreplaceable" according to Lida Xing, a paleontologist from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing. 

Jurassic Park-style Finds Become Elusive For Paleontologists

As the fight between the army and rebels persist in the Kachin state, only the extreme amber hunters can now penetrate the region, decreasing the opportunity of paleontologists for significant scientific findings.

Xing was part of the team that discovered a feathered dinosaur tail from Myanmar in 2015. The fossil was found to be 99 million years old. He shared that the situation in the region had already been challenging for paleontologists since then.

"We almost could not reach the mining area because it was very dangerous. We sneaked in when the situation eased quite a lot, but no scientist was able to go inside after that," the paleontologist said.

In the hopes that he can find the larger chunk of the fossilized dinosaur, Xing went back to Myanmar only to be disappointed. His contacts said they did not know where the source was but Xing suspected that they had smashed it and sold the pieces.

Indeed, amber hunters can earn as much as $100,000 per piece. Of particularly profitable are ambers that contain dinosaurs, plants, animals, or even insects such as ants and mosquitoes.

The Unlucky Tick

In June, German collector Patrick Muller found a tick trapped in spider silk inside an amber in Myanmar. The fossil was approximately 100 million years old. Paul Selden, professor of geology at the University of Kansas said the few tick species discovered in Myanmar were among the oldest specimens known to science.

The June discovery, however, was particularly significant because it is the first time that a fossilized species in amber revealed the ancient interaction between ticks and spiders.

Ancient Frogs

Also in June, four tiny frogs were found trapped inside amber in Myanmar. Paleontologists estimated that these frogs had the opportunity to live alongside dinosaurs. One of them was, in fact, identified as a new frog species called Electrorana limoae. The fossils were about 99 million years old.

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