Extinct, Toxic Flowers Discovered Fossilized in Amber

Flower fossil
A photo of the 'Styrchnos electri' plant, which was collected in 1986 by Oregon State University professor George Poinar. George Poinar

U.S. scientists have discovered a new species of a now-extinct plant, after testing the remains of two flowers that were fossilized in amber. The flowers had been preserved for at least 15 million years and belong to the genus whose species produce the deadly poison strychnine. The full name of the new plant is Styrchnos electri electri comes from the Greek word elektron, meaning amber.

The flowers were first collected in 1986 by George Poinar, a professor at Oregon State University. They were among 500 fossils that he had gathered but it wasn’t until 2015 that he began examining the flowers. Poinar sent photos of the specimens to Lena Struwe, a professor at Rutgers University and an expert in the Strychnos genus, who helped identify them. The researchers’ findings appear in the scientific journal Nature Plants.

In order to determine whether this was a new species, Struwe compared it against all 200 known members of the genus, visiting multiple museums in order to do so, the BBC reports. Both scientists suspect that the flowers would have been toxic to any animals that chanced upon them.

All members of the Strychnos genus contain alkaloids with varying degrees of toxicity. The most famous is strychnine, which was once used in rat poison. But these plants are also part of the asterid family, which includes more benign plants such as potatoes, mint and coffee beans.