Ancient Flowering Plant Preserved in Amber Was Probably Poisonous

Posted on February 15, 2016

Strychnos electri amber fossil

Scientists have discovered an amber fossil of a flowering plant that belongs to the genus Strychnos. This genus includes the strychnine tree which is a source for the deadly poison. The amber fossil is estimated to be 20-30 million years old.

The amber fossil was discovered in a Dominican amber mine in 1986 by George Poinar, Jr., a courtesy professor in the College of Science at Oregon State University. Poinar wrote the research paper with Lena Struwe, an expert on plants in the strychnine family and a plant biologist at Rutgers University. The scientists say the ancient plant was probably poisonous.

Poinar says in a statement, "Species of the genus Strychnos are almost all toxic in some way. Each plant has its own alkaloids with varying effects. Some are more toxic than others, and it may be that they were successful because their poisons offered some defense against herbivores. Today some of these toxins have been shown to possess useful and even medicinal properties."

Poinar also says, "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."

The new species was given the name Strychnos electri. The research paper was published here in the journal, Nature Plants.

Photo: George Poinar