Two 15 million-year-old flowers trapped in amber turn out to be a “completely new” species.
Writing in the journal Nature Plants, researchers from Rutgers University say the flowers do not belong to any known species of the Strychnos flower genus, which is made up of tropical trees, shrubs and lianas. The genus is also known as the source of the toxin strychnine.
The flowers, named Strychnos electri, were discovered among about 500 fossils caught in amber and found in 1986 in the Dominican Republic. Amber is fossilized tree resin, known as elektron in Greek.
Lena Struwe, professor of botany in Rutger's School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, made the discovery last April when she examined high-resolution photos of the samples she received from noted expert of fossilized amber specimens, George Poinar.
"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. "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. 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."
Poinar, who has spent most of his career looking at the insects contained in the amber samples, had his interest piqued by the flower.
"These flowers looked like they had just fallen from a tree," he said. "I thought they might be Strychnos, and I sent them to Lena because I knew she was an expert in that genus."
Struwe pored over other specimens of Strychnos collected by botanists and explorers from the past 200 years to come to the conclusion that Strychnos electri was a completely new species.