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OSU researchers struck gold when they discovered a new potentially toxic species of flower preserved in amber. Reminiscent of Jurassic Park, tiny flowers no bigger than a centimeter were plucked from the bowels of a cave system in the Dominican Republic 15 to 45 million years after becoming lodged in tree sap and compressed by the Earth. While the team may not be drilling for DNA, the find represents the first fossilized specimens of the asterids clade in this region.
Basically a single branch on the evolutionary tree of life, a clade characterizes a common ancestor and all descendants thereafter. “The asterids are one of the largest lineages of flowering plants, containing groups such as the sunflower, potato, coffee, and mint families, totaling over 80,000 species,” said Oregon State University researcher George Poinar, Jr. in a letter to the journal Nature Plants. Other notable asterids include tobacco, peppers, and the nux-vomica tree from which strychnine is derived.
While Dominican amber has produced a number of plant and animal fossils, this new find has added “significant paleo-evolutionary and biogeographical data.” In other words the specimen, now known as Strychnos electri, has added a new layer of evolutionary history to the asterids clade and made more vivid the picture of prehistoric forests in the Northern Hemisphere.
By Anthony Vitale