Anyone who has seen "Jurassic Park" knows that all manner of organisms can end up trapped in amber – preserved in hardened tree resin, waiting for scientists to unlock their secrets millions of years later. The latest find is a previously undiscovered species of flower that could be as much as 45 million years old.
Because amber – which is incredibly useful for preserving bugs and plants alike – is difficult to date, it's possible that the flower is as little as 15 million years old.
"These flowers looked like they had just fallen from a tree," Oregon State University entomologist George Poinar said in a statement. Poinar, who studies insects trapped in amber and brought the fossil back from an amber mine in the Dominican Republic in 1986, is a co-author on the study. "I thought they might be Strychnos, and I sent them to Lena because I knew she was an expert in that genus," he said.
By looking at the centimeter-long flower's morphology and comparing it to hundreds of years' worth of dried flower samples, Struwe was able to find its place on the floral family tree: It's most likely an asterid – a member of the clade of plants that includes potatoes, honeysuckle, coffee plants and about 80,000 other species. About one third of all flowering plants are asterids, but this is the first time one has been found preserved in amber in the New World.
Strychnos electri, which gets the second (species specific) part of its name from the ancient Greek word for amber, elektron, was indeed placed in the genus Strychnos. The plants in this genus are known for producing poisonous compounds like strychnine and curare. Struwe believes that electri probably was poisonous as well.
"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 said in a statement. In the paper, she writes that the discovery suggests that many of our more familiar astrids may have begun to emerge in the area during that time.
"The discovery of this new species in a 30-year-old amber collection highlights that we still have many undiscovered species hidden away in natural history collections worldwide and not enough taxonomic experts to work through them," Struwe said in a statement. "Strychnos electri has likely been extinct for a long time, but many new species living and, unfortunately, soon-to-be-extinct species are discovered by scientists every year."