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Dino Breath and other unseemly noises stuck in amber

Everyone breaks wind.

Yes, I know: a strange way to start a newsletter about amber. But bear with me unless a brief discussion about flatulence offends you. This is more relevant to amber than you’d expect.

Ed Elli Avea Del Cul Fatto Trombetta

It’s natural, it’s inevitable and it’s not just male. Unfortunately it seems to happen during the most unexpected times: the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere — one of the many rumored to be the real Shakespeare — is said to have cut one while swearing loyalty to Queen Elizabeth I (Mark Twain says it was Walter Raleigh… yeah, yeah, always blaming someone else). As the apocryphal story goes, de Vere went into self-imposed exile because of it. Maybe that’s when he wrote The Tempest.

But alas, we humans aren’t the only ones busy tossing air biscuits. Dogs and cats are just as guilty (they don’t just serve as an excuse) and so are most other mammals, including whales and even herring.

Technically speaking The Gas We Pass is not always ours: it is caused in part by symbiotic bacteria resident in our gastrointestinal tracts (blame them!), and can be a funky mixture of gases, including the greenhouse gas methane (and yes, methane is flammable, so…).

Other animals pass methane as well — so much in fact, they are partly responsible for global warming. It is a well known fact that cows and sheep share 20% of the world’s methane production, although technically it’s mostly their burping that’s responsible (this is so funny I won’t even have to crack a one-liner about it, but stopping cows from burping and farting is indeed on the Fight Global Warming to-do list).

Yet the other creature who’s flatulence is responsible for 11% of the world’s methane production is the termite.

Are we getting closer to amber, or what?

Unlike cow methane which has increased because of ranching and hence is no longer in the ‘natural production’ list, termite is natural methane. But it’s amusing to think that this tiny insect produces more gas than humans do (just how someone might measure termite and cow flatulence I’ll leave to your own imaginations, but it’s not something I would want on my resume…).

Fossilized Farts

So what, pray tell, happens when a termite is locked in resin and dies? The bacteria do not die for a while: they continue to feed (eventually on the dead animal) and pass gas. And the gas escapes any orifice it can and blows a bubble into the liquid resin.

The results are the amusing looking bubbles on the back and front ends of some insects. Yet the most notable bubble producing insects are termites, due to their high methane production. Some in fact pass so much gas once they’re dead, it’s hard to recognize them now since their whole bodies bloat and inflate out of shape. Talk about a serious gas problems.

The difference between gas-bubbles and air-bubbles in amber is the shape and texture. While air and water bubbles are usually perfectly circular and smooth, gas-bubbles vary in shape, emanate from insects and their surface is bumpy and ridged.

But what about all these other bubbles in amber?

Some Very Stale Air

Many of the bubbles in amber are either air or water or both. How the water and air got there is a matter of speculation, but it may include rain and moving sap. Dominican Amber is pegged at 20 to 30 million years old, hence the water and air inside them is from about this time frame.

Now here’s a crazy thought: could it be that it is the same air that dinos breathed? Scientist asked the same question and took a sniff. 30 million is a bit young for dinos. They had gone the way of the Dodo a long time ago. But there is older amber available, although not from the Dominican Republic.

Dino Breath

The first amber tested were samples from the late Cretaceous about 75 million years ago found in Saskatchewan.

It should be noted that the tested amber was from a time period just before the KT Boundary, or better known as the point in time when That Big Asteroid hit. Why this is relevant will not be revealed as of yet to maintain a sense of suspense.

They crushed the amber in a vacuum and analyzed the released gases with a time-resolved quadruple mass spectrometry. The results were so controversial the poor geologists who conducted these first experiments in the late eighties had to take plenty of flack for it.

Our daily air contains about 20.9% of oxygen, plus a fun amount of other gases, most of them interesting, worrisome and others just plain out scary. But the ancient air samples revealed an average of 30% oxygen and more.

Fire In the Hole

That‘s frighteningly high. Oxygen promotes combustion, in other words: the more oxygen, the easier something is set on fire. That means if the results are correct the world back then was a whole lot more fragile to fires. Then again, there were no smokers around yet, and T-Rex is known for ferocity and not pyromania.

On the other hand, it would explain how such large animals could exist in the first place. The dinos needed a lot of oxygen to maintain their immense bodies, and 30% seems to do the trick.

There is however the case for the fact that amber is reactive, meaning that it is possible that the oxygen samples are corrupted for whatever reason. 30% is an average and the 300 samples tested by USGS scientists of the Cretaceous-Tertiary periods didn’t really correlate. Some went as high as 36.6% oxygen, while others went as low as 25.5%, depending on location and age (the oldest amber tested was about 130 million years old). If that is of any meaning is hard to say, but many believe that amber is too unstable to draw any conclusions from it.

Such is the nature of science: for every theory a counter theory exists. We’re still in diapers where hard facts are concerned, since most research results are often considered circumstantial evidence.

It got more interesting when younger amber was tested and again, it should be noted that this amber was from a time period long after the KT Boundary. Again, we shall briefly maintain a sense of suspense.


How Low Can You Go?

The results were quite different than expected. The oxygen amount in younger amber held an average of 14% — lower than the today’s amount and much lower than the 30%-35% at the outset. Basically what this means is that for some reason the earth’s oxygen content drastically dropped at the KT until settling at present levels.

And now for resolving the suspense: could our amber samples show what truly killed the dinos?

They may have run out of breath. Literally. Big dinos with high metabolic rates and inefficient metabolisms could not survive in this atmosphere. They were simply too exhausted to continue to feed, hunt and even… erm… have sex.

Could it be that the amber oxygen samples indicate that instead of a giant asteroid impact, it was a severe drop in oxygen that killed all large dinosaurs?

Or maybe did the impact of said asteroid cause a giant shockwave and fireball which, fueled by the oxygen-rich atmosphere, engulfed the entire planet — which could explain why so many aquatic animals survived the KT?

Or, maybe it was the Murder on the Orient Express factor that killed them: everyone’s guilty.

Of course, the debate over what truly killed the dinosaurs is only fueled by the amber bubbles. There are dozens of theories floating about, some of them real double-takers and jaw-droppers, many with questionable veracities.

My personal favorite — and returning to the subject of flatulence — is the idea that elevated methane emissions may have killed them, caused by their own flatulency. In other words, they could have farted themselves into extinction.

This idea may seem overly far-fetched, but you will feel different about it next time you’re stuck in a crowded elevator…

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