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'Swamp Thing' Unearthed: an Ancient Carnivorous Plant

Dec 03, 2014 02:38 PM EST

And you thought the "Swamp Thing" was only a fictional monster from 1980s Hollywood... A team of paleontologists has recently discovered what could be the oldest fossil of a carnivorous plant, dating back nearly 40 million years.

The discovery, detailed in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), was intially made in the Jantarny amber mine near Kaliningrad, Russia. The fossils, a pair of leaves, are remarkably well preserved in unclouded amber, allowing experts to examine the leaves without tampering with the fossils themselves.

From what can be told about this plant, it seems to be related to plants from the Roridulaceae family, which catch their prey using long, sticky hairs. What's more, it likely could be found all along the Baltic coastline 35 to 47 million years ago, when the region is thought to have been one massive swamp.

"It was surprising to find the fossils in Europe. It suggests they were probably more widely distributed than initially thought and later restricted to a few places," study co-author Alexander Schmidt told New Scientist.

According to the study, past research has suggested that the plant family Roridulaceae originated in Africa, and later became isolated when the modern-day continent broke away from South America, Madagascar, India, Australia, the Middle East, and Antarctica about 180 million years ago.

However, with the discovery of this European Roridulaceae fossil, this theory is now called into question.

And while little more can be determined with just two tiny leaves encased in amber, Schmidt and his colleagues point out that Roridulaceae of the genus Roridula can only be carnivorous with a litle help from other organisms. They reportedly trap prey using hairs much like seen in the amber samples, and then a symbiotic species of capsid bug actually eats the trapped prey (usually larger insects). Roridula then get nutrients from these insects' droppings.

The researchers now hope to investigate the samples further with methods slightly more intrusive than simple observation.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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