A scientist whose work is said to have inspired the movie Jurassic Park has found the oldest known examples of a useful family of plants. The specimens are locked up as fossils in amber millions of years old.
The perfectly preserved Strychnos electri — now extinct — is not only the oldest example of an “astrid,” but also a brand new species, never before recorded by science, researchers announced this week.
George Poinar Jr. and Lena Struwe published their findings in the journal Nature Plants.
Though Strychnos electri, as an astrid, shares ancestry with plants that led to potatoes, egg plants and coffee beans, it’s probably also deadly poisonous.
And that’s where it got its name. “Strychnos” is related to strychnine, which was once a key ingredient in rat poison and has shown up in murderous tales from Sherlock Holmes novels to the movie “Psycho.”
Strychnine is also found in plants in the astrid family, as is the poison curare that is used by South American indigenous people to tip blow darts.
Some 15 to 30 million years ago, the Strychnos electri blossoms dropped into gooey tree resin that turned solid into transparent amber. “The specimens are beautiful, perfectly preserved flowers,” Poinar said.
The two whole intact flowers sat in Poinar’s collection for about 30 years.
He had not been digging specifically for plants in 1986, when he unearthed 500 amber fossils in the Dominican Republic. But instead for prehistoric bugs, which is what he’s much better known for as an entomologist.
Poinar became famous after he worked on extracting the DNA of the prehistoric insects locked in the amber. The movie Jurassic Park picked up on the idea, giving it a plot twist: Extract the DNA from dinosaurs the bugs bit and clone them back into existence.
Eyeballing a flower
Poinar, now a “courtesy professor” at Oregon State University, worked on insects for years, but recently his studious gaze shifted to those perfect blossoms. Usually, amber fossils contain just small remnants of plant — a petal, a stem.
But a whole flower in mint condition is rare. Two even rarer.
“These flowers looked like they had just fallen from a tree,” Poinar said. Not being a botanist, he decided to run them by one at Rutgers University — Lena Struwe.
“I thought they might be Strychnos, and I sent them to Lena because I knew she was an expert in that genus,” he said.
Hitting the road
Struwe poured through archives of dried flowers collected over the last 200 years and took trips to the New York Botanical Garden and the Philadelphia Herbarium. Both have extensive collections of Strychnos.
She eyeballed specimens of known Strychnos and compare them with the photos of fossils.
“I looked at each specimen of New World species, photographed and measured it, and compared it to the photo George sent me. I asked myself, ‘How do the hairs on the petals look?’ ‘Where are the hairs situated?’ and so on.”
She found the amber-locked species to be new and unique and added the name “electri” to get “Strychnos electri.” It comes from “elektron,” the ancient Greek word for “amber.”
By Ben Brumfield