23 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

Suresh Menon: lizards in amber? Precious

Our columnist dissects the lizard-scientist conundrum and comes out wondering who’s the fossil

Suresh Menon
21 Mar 2016 | 04:44 pm

The fossilised lizards (sounds like the name of a rock band) found in Myanmar 40 years ago are 99 million years old, scientists in the Florida Museum of Natural History have calculated. It must have been a tough calculation because it took them four decades, and the bright youngster of 20 who began the work full of enthusiasm is probably heading for retirement at a world-weary 60.

They might tell us next year (or 40 years later), ‘sorry, they are actually only 97 million years old’. There is nothing more disappointing than being told that something you respect for its age is younger than you thought.

Maybe the lizards were actually 98 million nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and sixty years old when discovered, and scientists waited this long before announcing the age only in order to get a nice round figure. If so, they were being thoughtful. Age, like the national debt or the value of pi to a thousand places, might only be a number, but when the number is in the millions, we have to know for sure.

Anyway, for those who like romantic stories about prehistoric lizards on the verge of developing toe pads to cling on to trees as practice before evolving into chameleons, here’s how it happened. All those years ago, around a dozen lizards decided to go on a picnic, and ignoring their parents’ warning not to get too close to the sticky tree resin did what picnic-going youngsters have been doing for 99 million years. They got too close to the resin, which then fossilised into amber and the little lizards were preserved for scientists to study.

Someday, scientists might get too close to resin and be preserved for millions of years for lizards to study them later. This is known as the circle of life, and is a lesson for the Titanic. The vessel, you remember, ran out of lifeboats, but if they had resin, Leonardo di Caprio might have been preserved for millions of years and scientists could have un-ambered him so he could become the first actor to win the Oscar 99 million years apart.

Scientists say that each of the lizards tells a different tale: the eyes in one are preserved, the vertebra in another and so on. This is like the complete works 
of Shakespeare in fossilised lizards, with poetry, drama, tragedy, comedy, soliloquy and prose, all well-preserved.

But, what if it turns out that the lizards are only 40 years old, were born and died on the same day in Myanmar, having ignored their parents and walked too close to the resin?

Blame it on the amber.

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Suresh Menon

Suresh Menon

is a writer based in India. In his youth he set out to change the world but later decided to leave it as it is.