Extinct, Beautiful Flowers Frozen in Amber Were Poisonous

First Posted: Feb 16, 2016 08:12 AM EST

Scientists have discovered an ancient, flowering plant frozen in amber. While the flower may have been beautiful, though, it was also poisonous.

The flower belongs to the family, "asteroid." This family of flowering plants gives us everything form the potato to tobacco to petunias to our morning cup of coffee. These particular extinct flowers, though, come from the darker side of the asteroid family. They belong to the genus Strychnos, which gave rise to some of the world's most famous poisons, including strychnine and curare.

"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, one of the researchers, in a news release. "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."

Asterids are among the Earth's most important and diverse plants, with 10 orders, 98 families and about 80,000 species. They represent a staggering one-third of all the Earth's diversity of flowering plants, known as angiosperms. Now, researchers have found that one ancient, inherently toxic genus was around for millions of years before humans.

"Species of the genus Strychnos are almost all toxic in some way," said Poinar. "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."

The findings are published in the journal Nature Plants.

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