Black Death, Orange Science

SciShort_10_1_15Some people think the Earth is only 5,000 years old. Those people should probably stop reading this now, because if they’re scared of a planet that’s much older than that, they’re really going to hate this next part. OSU scientists have found a 20-million-year-old fossil that they think may contain a strain of the bubonic plague. That’s right, it’s the Black Death, encased in amber.

Of all the insane fossil finds in amber, this one has got to be the most mind-blowing yet; a single flea picked up the suspected Yersinia pestis bacteria, landed on a tree branch, and then got smothered by amber, remaining preserved for eons. OSU scientists somehow discovered this tiny guy frozen in time, which is itself an astounding bit of scientific exploration, and then set about finding out what was trapped in there with him.

Though they are not sure yet, the bacteria they found in the amber appears to have all the same characteristics and shape of the plague.

George Poinar, Jr. is an entomologist at the OSU College of Science, and he specializes in this type of insanely small, frozen detective work.

“If this is an ancient strain of Yersinia, it would be extraordinary,” Poinar said in a press release. “It would show that plague is actually an ancient disease that no doubt was infecting and possibly causing some extinction of animals long before any humans existed. Plague may have played a larger role in the past than we imagined.”

It also flies in the face of the accepted thinking on this bacteria, which is that it only evolved in the last 20,000 years. While this is no doubt further bad news for Young Earth creationists, it’s a potentially major step forward for mainstream science. The flea find is a vital piece of new information that bolsters Poinar’s theory that insects played a large part in the extinction of the dinosaurs.

 The Black Death killed somewhere between 75 and 200 million people in the Middle Ages, so let’s hope Poinar keeps all his jar lids screwed on very tightly as he continues to investigate this fascinating discovery.

By Sidney Reilly