Everything that happens in "Jurassic Park" follows the discovery of dinosaur DNA preserved for millions of years in mosquitoes trapped in fossilized tree resin, allowing scientists to create clones of the long-extinct creatures. While that specific scenario is fictional and highly unlikely to happen, unusual fossils found in amber do pop up from time to time, helping us better understand plants and insects that have long since disappeared.
In a new paper published in Nature Plants, entomologist George Poinar and Lena Struwe, professor of botany in the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, describe a rare, perfectly preserved, newly discovered species of flowers that was trapped in amber between 15 and 45 million years ago. It's hard to get an exact date from amber, but an age range was determined by comparing the new flower with other known species and by dating fossilized insects found nearby in the same cave in the Dominican Republic. (And it's worth noting that Struwe writes a blog called Botanical Accuracy, where “botanical mistakes in commercial and public venues and products are showcased and corrected.”)
Struwe named the new flower Strychnos electri because “electricus” in Latin and “elektron” in Greek translate to “amber." It’s a new species that's most likely part of the asterid family, one of the largest lineages of flowers (about 80,000 species) encompassing about one-third of all flowering plants, including tomatoes, peppers and coffee, among others. The genus strychnos includes many species that are poisonous, but we can’t know if this newly discovered member was toxic or not.
Every newly found species helps us better understand the ecology of the time. “This fossil turned out to have particular significance for our understanding of the evolution of plants in the Caribbean and the New World tropics,” Struwe told Rutgers Today.
Interestingly, the amber containing the previously undiscovered flower was collected in the Dominican Republic in 1986 by Poinar, who specializes in the study of insects trapped in amber. He came back from that trip with 500 fossils, focusing most of his attention on the insects. But as he told Rutgers Today, this specimen caught his eye.
“These flowers looked like they had just fallen from a tree,” Poinar said. “I thought they might be Strychnos, and I sent them to Lena because I knew she was an expert in that genus.”