An ancient flower discovered preserved in amber was likely poisonous, but it could have been an ancestor of modern asterids, including modern tomatoes, potatoes and coffee. The unique fossil was found, along with a treasure trove of other remains, in a cache of amber uncovered inside a cave in the Dominican Republic.
The fossil flower is believed to have formed from a plant that lived as long as 45 million years ago, during the Eocene Epoch. It was around this time that the continents of Australia and Antarctica separated from each other, driven by the forces of continental drift. The climate of the Dominican Republic at that time was hot and wet, and the area was alive with grasses, vines, and various forms of palms.
Due to the fact that this species has never before been seen, the artifact could be from a time as recent as 15 million years before our own time, during a time when kangaroos first hopped around the land mass of Australia.
"Specimens such as this are what give us insights into the ecology of ecosystems in the distant past. It shows that the asterids, which later gave humans all types of foods and other products, were already evolving many millions of years ago," said George Poinar, Jr., from the College of Science at Oregon State University.
Biologists have never seen this species of flower before alive, or in the fossil record. This also marks the first time that an asterid has ever been discovered preserved in amber. Paleontologists often have to date fossils in amber from other samples found around the artifact.
The fact that this flower was likely poisonous should not be surprising - the family of asterids also includes tobacco. This ancient flower was likely a member of the Strychnos genus of asterids. These plants produce curare, a toxin commonly used in blowgun darts, and strychnine, used as rat poison.
Asterids are one of the most diverse clade of plants, encompassing the one-third of all known varieties of flowering plants, or angiosperms.
Alfred Hitchcock popularized the use of strychnine as a poison in the movie Psycho. Protagonist Norman Bates used the toxin to kill his mother and her partner. Curare was the poison of choice in "A Game of Shadows" by Sherlock Holmes.
For more than two centuries, peaking in the late 18th Century, many people throughout Europe feared tomatoes, where the species became known as the "poison apple." Following the deaths of some wealthy people there, the fruit was feared, due to its botanical lineage. However, the victims were served the food on pewter plates, and the acidic nature of the tomatoes leeched lead from the plate into the food, resulting in toxicity.
Today, many asterids are being studied for their possible contributions to medicine, including potential new treatments for malaria and infestations by parasitic worms. The disocvery of this plant specimen suggests that other similar species likely evolved during the same period, and await discovery by biologists and paleontologists.
Discovery and analysis of the ancient asterid was detailed in the journal Nature Plants.