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This ancient amber in Lebanon offers a glimpse into Earth's history

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Imagine a world with no flowers, no bouquets, no blossoms, no bursts of color, waving in the breeze. Well, this was our planet some 130 million years ago, a world dominated by ferns and conifers. But since then, the first flowers emerged, and Earth has never been the same. Well, there are few places today where we can catch glimpses into this key moment in our world's evolutionary history. But the country of Lebanon is one with a treasure trove of specimens that have been sealed away for millennia. Science reporter Ari Daniel went for a closer look.

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: It's a bright sunny morning in Ain Dara in central Lebanon. The sky is blue, and a main two-lane road cuts its way through the hilly, rugged countryside. I walk about 100 feet down that road before Dany Azar, my guide for the day, stops and points to the start of a stone ledge.

So now we're going to climb up.

DANY AZAR: I'm hoping that will be not a lot of mud here, but we'll try. Let's have a look.

DANIEL: OK.

Azar is a paleontologist at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology in China. But he's originally from Lebanon, which is where he returns a few times each year to do his field work. We step onto the hillside and begin to make our way up the steep and crumbly face. Before long, Azar stops. All I see are dirt and stones, but Azar spots his first find in an instant...

AZAR: So, I can see a piece of amber right there.

DANIEL: Oh, yeah, it's a...

...A bit of amber, not much bigger than a grain of rice. Then he spots another and another, shiny golden fragments glinting in the sunlight.

AZAR: So this is one of the 450 outcrops of amber that I discovered in this country.

DANIEL: You found 450?

AZAR: Yes, in Lebanon. (Laughter) Yes. They call me the Amber Man.

DANIEL: And before that, nobody knew about them?

AZAR: There was only one outcrop which was known in the south of Lebanon.

DANIEL: The word amber actually comes from Arabic - anbar. And the specimens here in Lebanon are special because unlike almost anywhere else in the world, much of what Azar's dug up comes from a critical moment in our planet's history 130 million years ago, during the early Cretaceous period.

AZAR: It was a tropical climate with very humid, dense and dark forest, and a lot of life here. I don't think that I could be standing one minute, in fact, in such type of environment because it could be very dangerous.

DANIEL: There were dinosaurs and hordes of insects, and the early Cretaceous marks a crucial turning point for our planet.

AZAR: The end of the old ecosystem, which was dominated by the ferns and the conifers, and the beginning of the new one - new world, which is dominated by the flowing plants. Everything was changing in this world.

DANIEL: The arrival of flowers transformed the Earth into the planet we know today. There was an explosion of new families of plants stocked with pollen and nectar, laid out like a buffet for legions of insects that evolved and diversified over the subsequent millennia to consume it.

AZAR: A lot of groups, in fact, just appeared during this period - bees and other pollinators and even the beginning of lepidoptera or butterflies.

DANIEL: Flowering plants and insects, they evolved in tandem.

AZAR: When a plant is changing, the insect will follow and vice versa because the plant will need to be pollinated by the insects.

DANIEL: And this is where these stockpiles of amber are super useful. Not all the pieces are tiny. Sibelle Maksoud, a geologist at Lebanese University and Azar's wife, is out collecting today too. And she's just turned up a chunk of amber the size of a golf ball.

SIBELLE MAKSOUD: It's a treasure. Just think that you are the first one who's touching this resin since 130 million years. So it's a beautiful feeling. So after we can wash it a little bit, and we can check under the microscope if you can see insects inside.

DANIEL: Millions of years ago, an unlucky insect could become trapped by the sticky resin that oozes out of certain trees. With time, under the right conditions, this resin hardened into amber.

AZAR: It's wonderful because it's perfectly well preserved. The piece of amber is a window to the past.

DANIEL: Azar has gazed through this window again and again by peering into orbs of amber collected across Lebanon, and it allows him to reconstruct the drama that was unfolding on Earth during the early Cretaceous, how flowering plants took over and how insects enabled the coop. For instance, Azar recently found a rather special mosquito in a piece of 130 million-year-old amber.

AZAR: This is the oldest mosquito in the world.

DANIEL: The oldest mosquito ever found.

AZAR: Ever found in the world.

DANIEL: You found a mile that way.

AZAR: Yes. And moreover, it's a male with very functional mouth parts to get the blood meal.

DANIEL: Once flowers arrived in the early cretaceous, Azar says male mosquitoes likely changed their eating habits, evolving away from blood to feed on a different, safer food source like nectar, which is why today, males don't bite and suck blood. Only pregnant females do. This is just one treasure among many. Azar has got backlogged finds from more than 500 pounds of amber nuggets he's collected over the years.

AZAR: I just can say that we have a lot of nice discoveries that we're going to declare very soon.

DANIEL: Discoveries involving ancient flowers, dinosaur tracks and new insect species that Azar says will rewrite textbooks. Amber from the Cretaceous is like a series of snapshots of a planet in transition.

AZAR: When you see all these discoveries in a small country like this, it's fantastic. It's a gift. It's a gift. Yes (laughter).

DANIEL: There's just one problem. Azar can't get most of the rest of Lebanon to care about these gifts.

AZAR: In China, they will make a museum over that. And in Europe, they will protect the land because they care. And here, I'm fighting since 20 years to get a natural history museum.

DANIEL: But he says all he's gotten are empty promises. To him, these amber outcrops are heirlooms squandered.

AZAR: Since I was born in this country, there's always troubles.

DANIEL: He's seen people build construction projects on top of outcroppings he's discovered, but there's minimal enforcement of zoning regulations. In late 2019, Lebanon's economy crashed, triggering massive inflation. Azar's salary could buy less and less.

AZAR: So I was kind of obliged to go to China to be able to continue my research.

DANIEL: Which means he lives most of the year away from his family, though he's hoping they'll join him soon. And on this trip, he hasn't dared travel to the south of the country to collect amber samples for safety reasons. Near the border, the Israeli military and Hezbollah militia fighters have been trading near daily fire since October 7.

AZAR: It's too dangerous. You know, we have bombing every day in the south of Lebanon unfortunately. Why? Why we can't live some years in a peaceful way and in a normal way?

DANIEL: Still, Azar thinks the museum he longs for will one day be built to house his bounty. He doesn't know it yet, but today's hall of golden globes will yield numerous Cretaceous insects, including a spider, a handful of biting midges and a male lacewing likely never seen before - a new species enrobed in amber, buried in the mud on the side of the road, just waiting to be found in a place layered with a deep and complicated history. For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDISH GAMBINO SONG, "REDBONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Daniel is a reporter for NPR's Science desk where he covers global health and development.