See a Rare Flower and Wasp Entombed in 30 Million-Year-Old Amber

Science and art merge in a piece of ancient amber.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read

Captured in a moment and preserved for millions of years. This is the bittersweet story of a flower and a wasp. It didn't end well for them when they were encased together in sticky tree sap, but they left open a fascinating window into the past.

A tiny long-stemmed flower and a wasp seen from the side against a yellow background.
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A tiny long-stemmed flower and a wasp seen from the side against a yellow background.

The flower on the left is part of the spurge family. The parasitic wasp next to it would have preyed on insects. 

George Poinar Jr./OSU

The amber came from the Dominican Republic and dates back 30 million years. The rare flower, now called Plukenetia minima, is both familiar and unusual. It's a newly described species of the Euphorbiaceae family that still exists today. The family includes familiar poinsettia plants that are popular as holiday decor. 

Amber expert George Poinar Jr. of Oregon State University published descriptions of the flower and the wasp in separate papers. The paper on the flower came out in the journal Historical Biology last month. Poinar spotted a developing fly larva in one of the flower's seed pods.

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The wasp, Hambletonia dominicana, was parasitic. "In many cases, unrelated organisms become entombed together in amber just by chance," said Poinar in an Oregon State statement Monday. "But I feel that in this case, the wasp was attracted to the flower, either for obtaining nectar or in attempts to deposit an egg on the capsule that contains the fly larva."

Poinar took a poetic view of the encased pair, comparing the elegant curves and long lines of the flower to the Art Nouveau movement and the sharp angles and decorative shapes of the wasp to the Art Deco style. This isn't so much a flight of fancy as it is a way of recognizing the beauty of ancient biological artifacts and seeing them in a very human way. It's science, but it's also art.