Rutgers scientist-sleuth finds ancient plant locked in amber –

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More than 15 million years ago, the delicate flowers fell to the floor of a muggy, tropical forest, and somehow did not rot and wither away.

Instead, they were trapped in sticky globs of tree resin, hardened into amber, and carried on the high seas to what is now a Caribbean mountain range.

The first Lena Struwe heard of all this was when she opened an email at Rutgers University last April, depicting the fragile petals trapped in golden splendor.

On Monday, the botanist and her collaborator, Oregon State University’s George O. Poinar Jr., who found the amber fossils, announced that the plant was a new species, Strychnos electri. For Agatha Christie fans, that’s a distant cousin of the plant that contains the poison substance strychnine.

Struwe has identified dozens of other new species before, usually from existing museum collections. None were from modern field expeditions like this one, and none anywhere near so old. Yet these ancient flowers are similar to modern cousins found on the woody vines known as lianas, she said.

“It is pretty amazing that they have survived so long and they look so incredibly perfect,” Struwe said. “They look like something that fell off one of these lianas yesterday.”

This is a regular detective story, in which Struwe visited the historic collection at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, reviewing scores of known species to determine that the ancient petals trapped in amber were, in fact, “new.” The findings were published in the journal Nature Plants.

Both Struwe and Poinar are among the small number of scientists who have drawn notice in the popular realm.

Poinar’s work on insects trapped in amber inspired author Michael Crichton to write the Jurassic Park series. (And yes, he often gets the question of whether we could really make dinosaurs from DNA extracted in blood-sucking insects trapped in amber. Answer: leave it to Hollywood.)

Struwe, meanwhile, blogs at, gently pointing out mistaken identifications of plants in popular culture.

Among her past targets was an ad for Apple’s iPhone 4S, in which the phone’s internal assistnat, Siri, was asked what poison oak looked like. But the phone incorrectly displayed an image of poison ivy, she said.




Rutgers scientist-sleuth finds ancient plant locked in amber –