An Ancient Flower Trapped in Amber – The New Yorker

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The flowers of Strychnos electri are slim and small and trumpet-shaped. Their petals flare out at the tip to form a star, out of which a single spindly pollen tube protrudes. They look as if they might have fallen from the stalk yesterday, but they are ancient. At least fifteen million years ago, and possibly as many as forty-five million, they landed in the sticky sap of a tree that is now extinct, in a kind of forest that no longer exists on Earth. The sap hardened into amber, the tree died, and eventually geology took over. The fossilized flowers were submerged in water, buried under layers of gravel and limestone, and finally thrust upward into the foggy hills of the modern-day Dominican Republic. There, in 1986, an American entomologist named George Poinar, Jr., unearthed them.

Poinar, who is now seventy-nine, has spent his entire career examining insects trapped in amber, using them to reconstruct prehistoric ecosystems. In 1982, he and his future wife, the microscopist Roberta Hess, discovered a remarkably well-preserved female fly in a droplet of forty-million-year-old Baltic amber. Their finding inspired Michael Crichton to write “Jurassic Park,” his de-extinction fantasy turned blockbuster film. Since then, the Poinars have found the oldest known bee, the oldest known mushroom, the first known insect-borne disease, and the genetic sequence of a hundred-and-twenty-million-year-old weevil. Only a few of Poinar’s five hundred pieces of Dominican amber contained plant fragments rather than insects, and, being a bug person, he turned his attention to them last. It wasn’t until April of 2015, nearly thirty years after the fossils were first uncovered, that he decided to e-mail photographs of two specimens to Lena Struwe, a professor of botany at Rutgers University.

A leaf from Hymenaea protera, the tree that produced the Dominican amber.
A leaf from Hymenaea protera, the tree that produced the Dominican amber. Courtesy George Poinar / Oregon State University

“It was out of the blue,” Struwe told me. “I looked at the photos and this flower looked like things I had seen before—but it didn’t look exactly like anything I had seen before.” Struwe is an expert on the tropical trees, shrubs, and vines of the genus Strychnos, some of which produce the poison strychnine. She compared Poinar’s images with examples of the Strychnos family in herbaria collections, studying the hairs on the petals and measuring the length of the anthers—the polleny tips—to try to find a match. Strychnos pseudoquina, a Brazilian evergreen whose bark is used for treating fever, came close, but its sweetly scented flowers are even smaller than Poinar’s specimens, and its petal hairs are sparse and long, rather than dense and matted. The flowers of Strychnos toxifera, a climbing plant that is the main source of curare, also seemed similar, but they are a little too big, with long and silky hairs. And although the flowers of Strychnos tomentosa, a wild vine whose fruit is harvested for food in the forests of French Guiana, are more or less the right size and hairiness, their anthers are attached differently.

Eventually, Struwe concluded that the amber flowers constitute a new species, something different from anything that is alive today. In a paper in the current issue of Nature Plants, she and Poinar dub the species Strychnos electri, after the Greek word for amber (elektron). The flowers are the first example of an asterid—one of the three major groups of flowering plants, encompassing the sunflower, the coffee tree, and the potato, among others—to be found in amber in the New World. Unlike Poinar’s weevil, these specimens are unlikely to yield usable DNA: genetic material is much more difficult to extract from plant fossils than from insects or mammals. Nonetheless, the insects that likely pollinated electri, millions of years ago, would still be equipped to attend to modern members of the Strychnos family. The entire ecosystem within which the flowers evolved is extinct, and yet, somehow, their descendants have remained almost the same.

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An Ancient Flower Trapped in Amber – The New Yorker

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