In a case worthy of Sherlock Holmes, researchers are trying to figure out exactly when and where in the world a long-fingered lizard got trapped in the sticky sap of a tree.
Over time, that sap, or tree resin turned into amber, preserving the lizard’s remains, including its textured skin. This unique lizard-amber block somehow came into the possession of a man who donated it to the Miller Museum of Geology at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, in the 1980s, but the man didn’t report the artifact’s age or provenance.
“The man who donated it died, unfortunately,” said Ellen Handyside, an undergraduate student studying geological engineering at Queen’s University, who is leading the research into the amber-encased lizard. “We are really starting from scratch” in determining its history, she said. [In Photos: Amber Preserves Cretaceous Lizards]
Handyside began looking for clues by reading as many studies about amber as possible.
Then, she and her colleagues analyzed the chemical composition of the small, 4.7-inch-long (12 centimeters) piece of amber, learning two key facts: First, the amber was real, meaning “it proved it wasn’t a fake,” an important point given that so little was known about the sample, Handyside told Live Science. And second, “we found it did match up quite well to a Dominican [amber] sample,” although the results weren’t conclusive, she said.
The researchers also analyzed the amber’s carbon and hydrogen isotopes (an isotope is a variation of an element that has a different number of neutrons in its nucleus). Results indicated that the amber was formed from the sticky resin of a flowering tree, or angiosperm.
Moreover, the isotopic results suggested that the tree (and the lizard, for that matter) lived in an area with a lot of rainfall and dated to the Neogene, a…