A new species of ancient flower, preserved in amber-the fossilized resin of long-dead trees-from the Dominican Republic is described in a paper published online in Nature Plants this week. The two fossils are the first flowers found in New World amber from a representative of the asterids, one of the most diverse groups of plants alive today that includes sunflowers, coffee, peppers, potatoes and mint.
Small insects and other organisms can become trapped in tree resin before it solidifies, to be preserved, essentially unchanged, for millions of years in the resulting amber.
George Poinar and Lena Struwe describe two separate pieces of amber that originate from a mine in the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range of the Dominican Republic. Through careful examination of the encased flowers, which are just less than one centimetre in length, they show them to be part of the genus Strychnos-which also includes the Strychnine tree, S. nux-vomica, from which the poison strychnine is extracted. They name the new species Strychnos electri, after the Greek word for amber, elektron. Due to difficulties associated with the precise dating of amber, the authors use two different types of evidence to suggest the fossils could have formed as recently as 15-20 million years ago or as far back as 30-45 million years ago.
These fossils contribute to our understanding of the evolution and composition of the neotropical Caribbean forest that existed in the Mid-Tertiary period, long before North and South America were connected by the Panama land bridge.