A botanist at the Oregon State University stumbled upon an unlikely sort of ancient artifact early last year: two delicate tropical blossoms almost perfectly preserved in amber. It wasn’t until this week that the flowers were identified as a new species, Strychnos electri, which is a distant relative of the plant that produces the poison strychnine. The flowers are believed to be more than 15 million years old and perhaps as much as 45 million years old.
George O. Poinar Jr spotted the two amber relics and enlisted his collaborator Lena Struwe at Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences for help identifying the ancient flowers. Struwe has a lot of experience identifying new species of plants, but never before had she encountered any specimens so ancient or in such stellar condition. “It is pretty amazing that they have survived so long and they look so incredibly perfect,” Struwe said. “They look like something that fell off one of these lianas yesterday.”
Struwe relied on a vast collection of specimens of other known Strychnos species, comparing the amber artifacts against photos, botanical illustrations, and descriptions held in at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and other museum collections. The ultimate identification came down to one tiny variation that might have been overlooked if not for such perfectly preserved samples. The petals of the new species, unlike its close cousins, have tiny hairs on the outside, but not on the inside, according to Struwe.
Poinar announced the discovery this week, and he and Struwe coauthored a paper describing the new species.