Ancient amber locks floral ancestor of modern vegetables frozen in time

Researchers have discovered a new flower species that is likely an ancestor to many plants living today.

Courtesy of George Poinar
The new fossil flower Strychnos electri in its original Dominican amber piece of mid-Tertiary age. The whole flower is less than 20 mm long and is the first finding of an asterid flower in amber from the New World.

Scientists discovered a new flower species in a unique place. Two flowers were trapped in ancient amber. 

The blossoms, estimated to be 20 to 30 million years old, are extinct relatives of many flowering plants still alive today. With some 80,000 different species, the "asterid" family make up about one-third of the diversity of flowering plants across the globe.

The new, amber-clad member of the family is described in a paper published Monday in the journal Nature Plants

This new flower will be forever linked to amber. Lena Struwe, the botanist who identified the flower as a new species, named it Strychnos electri. The name is derived from the Greek word for amber, elektron. 

Strychnos electri may look attractive glowing gold in the amber, but it was likely toxic. 

"Species of the genus Strychnos are almost all toxic in some way," George Poinar, who discovered the specimens, said in a news release. In fact, humans have extracted strychnine, a pesticide, from a tree species of the genus.

But the clade, asterids, has yielded everything from potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants to coffee beans, sesame, and herbs like mint.

"Specimens such as this are what give us insights into the ecology of ecosystems in the distant past," Dr. Poinar said. "It shows that the asterids, which later gave humans all types of foods and other products, were already evolving many millions of years ago."

The two flowers were discovered among hundreds of other amber fossils Poinar dug out of an amber mine in the Dominican Republic in 1986. Poinar, an entomologist, focused primarily on insects trapped in the amber.

"These amber pieces are like time capsules, a frozen moment of life that we can now relive and study," Dr. Struwe told Reuters. Amber is fossilized tree-resin, so all it takes to preserve ancient plants or animals is a step into the sticky stuff.

"The flower is incredibly well-preserved, not distorted, not compressed, not fragmented into pieces, but looks like it just fell off its branch and dropped into sticky resin," Struwe said.

"Dating of Dominican amber is imprecise," Poinar and Struwe write in their new paper. Dating techniques revealed the new specimens could be as young as 15 to 10 million years old and as old as 30 to 45 million years old.

This new species is not the world's oldest flowering plant. According to research published last year, that crown may go a 130-million-year-old plant discovered fossilized in rock. 

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