for National Geographic News
A 20-million-year-old spider frozen in time with droplets of its own blood may offer important new clues to the past, says the scientist who found it in the Caribbean.
The discovery of the previously unknown spider, preserved in fossilized tree resin, or amber, has echoes of Jurassic Park.
In Michael Crichton's book, scientists brought T. rex and other Jurassic giants back to life using dinosaur DNA taken from bloodsucking mosquitoes encased in amber.
While scientists maintain that the fictional story line remains extremely far-fetched, paleontologist David Penney says the new spider represents the first known amber fossil containing traces of blood.
Penney, from the University of Manchester in England, says it may be possible to extract DNA from the extinct spider's blood. But the fossil could prove even more valuable by helping shed light on the origins of animals found in the Caribbean.
The specimen came from an amber mine in the Dominican Republic on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
"This is the first ever fossil record of the spider family Filistatidae," Penney said. "Nobody's ever seen this before."
The small spider's closest living relatives are found only in Brazil and Argentina, providing a possible clue as to how Hispaniola and other islands in its island chain formed and were colonized by animals.
Hispaniola is part of the Antilles island chain, which stretches from Cuba to Grenada.
"The geological past of that region is quite complicated and not fully understood," Penney said.
South American Connection
Some speculate that the Antilles were once attached to Central America. More recently scientists have proposed that the chain was briefly connected to South America some 35 million years ago.
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