An ancient 20 to 30 million-year-old flower perfectly preserved in amber was recently unearthed in the Dominican Republic. The flower, Strychnos electri, represents the earliest known member of a plant family called asterids, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, petunias, coffee and, yes, two of the world's most famous poisons: strychnine and curare.
"The specimens are beautiful, perfectly preserved fossil flowers, which at one in time were born by plants that lived in a steamy tropical forest with both large and small trees, climbing vines, palms, grasses and other vegetation," George Poinar, Jr., Oregon State University professor and expert on plant and animal life forms preserved in amber, said in a news release.
"Specimens such as this are what give us insights into the ecology of ecosystems in the distant past," 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 asterid family is comprised of an estimated 80,000 species, and one genus within the family is inherently toxic. Based on their findings, researchers believe the ancient flower likely boasted toxic compounds, too.
"Species of the genus Strychnos are almost all toxic in some way," Poinar added. "Each plant has its own alkaloids with varying effects. Some are more toxic than others, and it may be that they were successful because their poisons offered some defense against herbivores. Today some of these toxins have been shown to possess useful and even medicinal properties."
Resin or sap famously preserves trapped insects and plant tissue as it hardens, but finding intact and perfectly preserved specimens are rare. Professor Poinar brought back some 500 fossil samples from the amber mine in 1986. It was not until recently, however, that he discovered and identified the two small tubular-shaped flowers, measuring only 10 millimeters length.
"These amber pieces are like time capsules, a frozen moment of life that we can now relive and study," Rutgers University botanist Lena Struwe said in a statement. "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."
Researchers suggest the recent discovery highlights the number of species that remain hidden in museum collections. Their study was recently published in the journal Nature Plants.
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