An ancient plant species has been found encased in amber and it’s believed to date back to approximately 15 million years ago.
The discovery was featured on Monday, February 15 in the journal Nature Plants. It was based on an analysis carried out by George O. Poinar Jr., affiliated with Oregon State University’s Department of Integrative Biology, and by Dr. Lena Struwe, professor of plant biology and pathology at Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.
Researchers carefully studied two incredibly well-preserved flowers trapped in fossilized amber, and determined that the plants were part of a clade called asterid, just like modern-day forget-me-nots, petunias, lilacs, olive trees, eggplants, potatoes, tobacco plants, tomatoes, coffee trees or herbs such as mint and rosemary.
Specifically, the ancient remains pertained to a plant from the genus Strychnos, included in a family known as Loganiaceae.
After comparing them against 200 other species of the same genus by examining the morphological traits of each individual plant, it became clear that the flowers belonged to a previously unidentified poisonous plant species.
That’s because these prehistoric petals had hairs distributed on the outside, instead of on the inside, like their most closely-related relatives.
The ancient plant species was subsequently called Strychnos electri. The name was awarded as a reference to the fact that the flowers were discovered in fossilized tree resin, sine the Greek name for amber is elektron.
Even though the plant species has just recently been classified and identified, the fragments encasing the ancient flowers were actually unearthed back in 1986, during an expedition that Poignar organized in an amber mine from the Dominican Republic.
At the time of the discovery, 500 other fossils were brought to light, the vast majority of them containing insects, which sparked more interest than the other amber pieces that had enveloped plants.
Now, decades afterwards, the flowers finally benefited from more attention, mostly because of their exceptional state, which appears to have withstood the test of time.
Basically, the blooms seem to have just been detached from a tree branch, looking eerily well-preserved thanks to the tree resin that probably encapsulated them soon after they hit the ground more than 15 million years ago.
Back then, this poisonous species bloomed in the tropical forest, alongside an incredible variety of other plants, such as palms, shrubs, climbing vines, grasses etc.
Strychnos electri eventually became extinct probably millions of years ago, but it closely resembled other plants of the same Strychnos genus, famous for containing an extremely toxic and potent alkaloid called strychnine, which is commonly used as a pesticide.
While strychnine is normally employed against rodents and birds, it can also be lethal to humans: after being ingested, inhaled or absorbed in any other manner it can result in muscle spasms, seizures, respiratory failure, cardiac arrest, brain damage or organ failure, followed in many cases by death.
As study authors explain, the discovery of this ancient plant species from the Strychnos genus helps shed more light into the exceptional variety of flora that dominated the Caribbean tropical landscape more than 15 millions ago.
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