Ancient flowering plant was beautiful - but probably poisonous
|Strychnos electri, encased in amber, was found by George Poinar during |
a trip to a Dominican amber mine in 1986, named by Lena Struwe
in 2015 [Credit: George Poinar]
Poisons that would later find their way into blow-gun weapons, rat control, Sherlock Holmes stories and the movie "Psycho" appear to have had some of their ancestral and biological roots in the prehistoric jungles of what's now the Dominican Republic, researchers say.
"The specimens are beautiful, perfectly preserved fossil flowers, which at one point in time were borne by plants that lived in a steamy tropical forest with both large and small trees, climbing vines, palms, grasses and other vegetation," said George Poinar, Jr., a courtesy professor in the College of Science at Oregon State University, and one of the world's experts on plant and animal life forms preserved in amber.
|The flower of Strychnos electri, found in fossilized amber, shows a long fused|
petal tube, anthers that are visible in the mouth of the flower, and a long
style that protrudes far [Credit: George Poinar]
Asterids, the researchers noted in this study, are among Earth's most important and diverse plants, with 10 orders, 98 families, and about 80,000 species. They represent about one-third of all the Earth's diversity of angiosperms, or flowering plants.
And one ancient genus, which has now been shown to be inherently toxic, existed for millions of years before humans appeared on the planet.
|This asterid flower is one of the only fossils of this family |
ever discovered [Credit: George Poinar]
As natural poisons that humans came to understand and use, two extracts from plants in the Strychnos genus ultimately became famous -- strychnine and curare.
Strychnine had practical uses for decades as a pesticide, and was often the deadly component of rat poison. But it also captured the imagination of writers, and was used by Norman Bates in the movie "Psycho" to kill his mother and her male companion. In small doses, it can increase mental and muscular activity.
|Strychnos electri is a newly found fossil flower in amber, and a closeup of the fossil |
shows the recurved petal lobes and small, tightly attached anthers with pollen
in the mouth of the flower [Credit: George Poinar]
There are now about 200 species of Strychnos plants around the world, in forms ranging from shrubs to trees and woody climbing vines, mostly in the tropics. They are still being studied for medicinal properties, such as for the treatment of parasitic worm infections and even as drugs to treat malaria.
The discovery of these two fossil flowers, researchers said, suggests that many other related plant families could have evolved in the Late Cretaceous in tropical forests. Their fossil remains, however, still await discovery.
The co-author of this study, Lena Struwe, is an expert on plants in the strychnine family, Loganaceae, and is a plant biologist at Rutgers University.
Source: Oregon State University [February 15, 2016]