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Ancient poisonous flower trapped in amber a cousin to strychnine

It's rare to find plant fossils intact, let alone plant fossils that go back at least 15 million years and relate to a modern pesticide.

This flower, trapped in amber at least 15 million years ago, recently got a new name.

Photo by George Poinar

Oh, amber, is there no limit to the science secrets you hide?

Last week brought news of fossilized tree resin whose ancient entombed termites suggest insects' longstanding awareness of social class.

Now a separate bit of amber has revealed another ancient treasure, this time a new plant species belonging to the genus Strychnos, which includes plants known for producing the lethal poison strychnine.

The discovery of the species, dubbed Strychnos electri by Rutgers University botany Professor Lena Struwe, can be traced to two flowers encased in amber for at least 15 million years. Struwe named the species in honor of the flowers' amber hideout (elektron is Greek for amber).

The flowers came to Struwe's attention via entomologist George Poinar, who has for years been studying a trove of amber samples collected during a 1986 trip to a Dominican Republic amber mine.

Most of those hundreds of amber samples contained insects, but the flowers caught Poinar's eye. "These flowers looked like they had just fallen from a tree," he said in a statement. "I thought they might be Strychnos, and I sent them to Lena because I knew she was an expert in that genus."

Professor Lena Struwe recently named a new species of
Strychnos.


Photo by Susanne Ruemmele

The pair's findings appear in the latest issue of the journal Nature Plants.

Though plant fossils found in amber are usually fragments such as petals and stamens, these flowers showed up intact. Poinar, a professor emeritus of integrative biology at Oregon State University, started by showing Struwe high-resolution photos of the trapped flower specimens.

After confirming that the specimens belonged to the Strychnos genus, Struwe went on to physically compare them, in exacting detail, with recent dried specimens from the category. That's how she ascertained the flowers in amber couldn't be categorized as a known species of Strychnos.

"I looked at each specimen of New World species, photographed and measured it, and compared it to the photo George sent me," Struwe said. "I asked myself, 'How do the hairs on the petals look?' 'Where are the hairs situated?' and so on."

Intact fossilized flowers from the Miocene Epoch are intriguing in their own right, but they might also suggest other yet-to-be-discovered species, according to Struwe.

"The discovery of this new species in a 30-year-old amber collection highlights that we still have many undiscovered species hidden away in natural history collections worldwide and not enough taxonomic experts to work through them," she said.

It's an exciting discovery for those fascinated with botany. And, of course, given the recent run of intriguing headlines related to amber, yet another coup for the fossilized resin's PR team.

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