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Prehistoric Explosive Pollen Release Caught Mid-Action

Sep 01, 2016 05:05 AM EDT
Los Haitises Park
20 million years ago, nettles that relied on explosive pollen release were part of the Dominican landscape.
Los Haitises National Park as seen from San Lorenzo bay (Dominican Republic)
(Photo : Anton Bielousov/Wikimedia Commons)

Amber has trapped all sorts of interesting things that scientists find fascinating, the most recent of which is a flower that was frozen in time mid explosive pollen release more than 20 million years ago.

The improbable event was found during research for a recently published article about a new genus of fossil nettle plants in the journal Botany. Peter Kevan, co-author of the paper and emeritus professor in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph, said that this pollen burst usually takes less than one-tenth of a second.

"It's remarkable that it was captured. It's like catching a sneeze," Kevan said in a release. "We ended up with the new genus because the flowers do not match those of any modern species. This tells us something about how old that group of plants is, and that this pollination mechanism goes back a long way."

Kevan was involved in another paper that was published in Botany. The second paper focuses on a related modern plant in Latin America that also makes use of the explosive pollen release found in the ancient nettle plants.

Plants studied for the first paper were preserved in Dominican and Mexican amber. The new genus of extinct nettles, named Ekrixanthera (explosive anther), contained two separate species.

The researchers were surprised to find explosive pollen release in tropical plants. The airborne pollen would probably get rained out, Kevan said.

Tropical plants are typically pollinated by flying animals, such as birds, bats and insects. This particular explosive pollen release happens as a direct result of short dry spells.

Students at the University of Sao Paulo who had taken a pollination course from Kevan co-authored the study. They were led by master's student Paula Maria Montoya-Pfeiffer. The course has been taught annually in Latin America by Kevan or his colleagues.

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