100 Million Years in Darkness: Ancient Flowers Trapped In Amber Come To Light
CORVALLIS, Ore. – Seven perfect tiny flowers hover in glowing gold, suspended in place, untouched and unseen for a hundred million years.
The last thing they encountered could possibly have been a dinosaur that brushed them free from the tree they grew on as it passed by. Or perhaps it was just the wind blowing through a landscape old nearly beyond comprehension.
Found trapped in amber unearthed in the small southeast Asian country of Myanmar, the discovery of this species marks the first time seven complete flowers have been reported in one study.
Lying underground as thousands of millennia’s worth of days and nights passed above them, the flowers were finally pulled from their resting place in a mining operation. Now, under the microscope of famed scientist George Poinar Jr., they reveal details of the prehistoric world.
“The amber preserved the floral parts so well that they look like they were just picked from the garden,” says Poinar, professor emeritus in Oregon State University’s College of Science, in a school press release. “Dinosaurs may have knocked the branches that dropped the flowers into resin deposits on the bark of an araucaria tree, which is thought to have produced the resin that fossilized into the amber.”
Dubbed Tropidogyne pentaptera by Poinar and OSU colleage Kenton Chambers, the flower’s name means “five wings” due to their delicate star-shaped form.
To give a sense of how long the flowers have been preserved, the researchers noted the araucaria trees that produced the amber are closely related to kauri pines found today in New Zealand and Australia some 4,000 miles away from Myanmar. The flowers themselves are also related to species in these areas. That is to say that while they lay frozen in time, the very world around them drifted into a new shape. Moving at an imperceptibly slow pace, the continents had enough time to move oceans apart while these seven flowers lay hidden and unchanging.
“In their general shape and venation pattern, the fossil flowers closely resemble those of the genus Ceratopetalum that occur in Australia and Papua-New Guinea,” Poinar says. “One extant species is C. gummiferum, which is known as the New South Wales Christmas bush because its five sepals turn bright reddish pink close to Christmas.”
The discovery adds to a building area of research from Poinar and his colleagues on other prehistoric specimens found trapped in amber including blood-engorged ticks, salamanders, and other new species of flowers.
In a long career of studying amber specimens, including the well preserved fly that inspired Jurassic Park writer Michael Crichton, Poinar does have a few favorites.
“I think my most interesting [discovery] was to find evidence of malaria in mosquitoes and biting midges,” says Poinar in an interview for NPR’s Science Friday. “It went back 100 million years, so now we know that malaria was around for a long time—it could very well have plagued the dinosaurs. There are many different lineages of malaria.”
In the same interview, Poinar also gives some advice to those interested in getting into his field.
“I would say it’s good to have a general background on being able to identify creatures at least at the ordinal level so that you can then call on a specialist. This is what I try to do with the flowers—identify them down to a particular group and then contact a specialist who’s been studying this group all their life, who obviously knows more than I would ever possibly know,” says Poinar. “If they’re going to work with amber, definitely take a course in gemology, because it involves cutting and polishing gems.”
The research also comes as other scientists take a different approach in studying the oldest flowers through 3D models based on data sets and DNA information.
The findings on T. pentaptera were published recently in the journal Palaeodiversity.