JURASSIC PARK LIVES?

Jurassic Park lives?
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JURASSIC PARK LIVES?



Written by James Read
27 Monday 27th February 2012

This is all kinds of amazing - scientists in Siberia discovered a Palaeolithic squirrel's burrow all set for hibernation, filled with a veritable pantry of ancient seeds and fruit. So they took those seeds, and grew a plant from them (well, actually it was from the fruit - they tried the seeds and it didn't work). So we now have a plant that is effectively 30,000 years old, thoroughly trouncing our previous record of a 2,000 year old date. Go us! This is a plant that last saw the light of day around the time we were rubbing shoulders with the last of the neanderthals and thinking we might give language a spin.

Before we get carried away though, the plant we've grown isn't some remarkable extinct gem of prehistory - it's a fairly plain relative of the carnation, and still exists all over the icier parts of Eastern Siberia. The only giveaway that it's not actually a modern sample (which would be embarrassing) is that it "produced more buds but was slower to put out roots". Which is some lazy-ass evolution for 30,000 years. Still, this does prove that ancient extinct plants could be regenerated. But what about the dinosaurs I hear you ask!



Probability of Jurassic Park: What's next? Mammoths in Hyde Park? Probably not, sadly. But not because it's necessarily impossible, but because it would be really, really expensive and slow. Scientists have found plenty of frozen woolly mammoth specimens from which we could extract DNA (the first of which was left to be eaten by wolves after its tusks had been nicked). And an artist has even recreated the lumbering pachyderm's roar. Having said that, our last attempt at bringing back an extinct animal species (the Pyrenean ibex - last of which killed by a falling tree in 2000) took 285 attempts and still only lasted seven minutes out of the womb. Still, a year ago a Japanese team said they'd give it a shot, so here's hoping!

Still awesome because: Life on asteroids - that's like, Aliens and shit.


Fossil forest

Artist's interpretation of the forest

In a rare PR coup for the mining industry, coal excavators in Northern China uncovered a fossilised forest full of prehistoric goodies. Last week, a group of scientists from University of Pennsylvania dropped science on us revealing what was found inside (warning: PDF). Dubbed the “Pompeii of the Permian period", the forest was preserved by a veritable Eyjafjallajökull-full of volcanic ash, which smothered the forest, fossilising the life within. The ash layer was dated from around 298 million years ago, the beginning of the Permian period (299 to 251 million years ago). Times, they were a-changin' - in just a few million years, megacontinent Pangaea would come together, and as the Carboniferous period ended, the first fully land dwelling animals (tetrapods - the precursors to mammals) were dominating.

Not so much was changing in Wuda, Inner Mongolia however, what with all the ash (unlike today, where it's a thriving centre of trade and culture - see wiki). The forest is pretty unusual, in that it's pretty rare to be able find such a large and intact dig site - it's roughly the size of a couple of football pitches, and many of the plants have been preserved exactly where they grew. This is awesome because it gives a good idea of how the local ecosystem may have worked - in terms of plant life anyway.


 
Probability of Jurassic Park: The important question is, of course, were there any DNA-carrying mosquitoes trapped in tree resin? So far, the answer is no. And anyway, dinosaurs didn't start popping up for another 70 million years after the forest was buried. And then they went and died out 65 million years ago, around 15 millions years before our oldest amber samples.

Still awesome because: Um, actually I don't think we want to see Up Pompeii recreated.



Lake Vostok

Contending once again for most remote place to stick their flag, earlier this month Russia drilled into a lake thought to be untouched for 20 million years. And thus, hopefully brimming with prehistoric life that has spent its days (well, not days, it's totally dark) evolving into something completely alien to any other life on Earth. The lake is buried beneath 4 kilometres of ice, in an area of Eastern Antarctica (Vostok is Russian for East) otherwise best known for being cold enough to freeze piss mid-air. And yet, despite temperatures as cold as -89 °C at the surface, the extreme pressure generated by 4,000 meters of ice warms things up enough at the bottom to keeps reservoirs of water as liquid.

Over the last 30 years, Russia has been intermittently drilling through the ice - they stopped for seven years in 1996 due to worries about contamination of the lake with life forms carried down from the surface. Many environmental groups were still unhappy with the precautions taken to stop us spoiling what may be one of the last long-term sealed ecosystems on Earth, but Russia has gone ahead and finally breached the lake just days before the Russian elections, beating a rival US-UK-German team drilling a lake nearby. Still bitter about Apollo 11 guys?

Removing the drill has forced water from the lake up into the borehole due to the water pressure, like some kind of prehistoric Bollinger, whereupon it has frozen into a 'plug', which Russia plans to return and retrieve after the Antarctic winter (over which Vostok is uninhabited). Which sounds to me like the perfect amount of time for a tentacled deathbeast to crawl out unobserved blinking into its first sunrise since the dawn of man, and eat us all.



Probability of Jurassic Park: Given that we've already discovered life on the way down, there could be a decent chance we come across an organism unseen for millions of years. But the lake is pitch black, freezing cold, and under 350 atmospheres of pressure. So whatever's down there is likely to be pretty weird.
 

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