A fossil flower trapped in amber had a mistaken identity for 150 years

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Eva-Maria Sadowski, a postdoctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum in Berlin, had no specific agenda in mind when she decided to borrow the largest fossil flower ever found in amber.

“I did it with no expectations, I just did it because I was curious,” she said.

Her curiosity pulled the thread of a more than 150-year case of mistaken identity, which resulted in a clearer picture of what Northern Europe’s Baltic amber forest looked like more than 33 million years ago.

The preserved flower flourished about halfway between the extinction of the last non-avian dinosaurs and the evolution of humans, who found it in the 19th century in the area that is now part of Russia. In 1872, scientists classified it as Stewartia kowalewskii, an extinct flowering evergreen.

The identity of the Baltic amber flower was not revised until Dr. Sadowski’s paper in Scientific Reports was published Thursday.

Plants in amber are a rarity. Among specimens of Baltic amber, only 1 to 3 percent of the organisms caught are botanical. This may be due to a preference for animals by amber collectors, but it may also be because animals wander into pools of sticky resin when plants must accidentally fall into them.

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Although harder to find, plants in amber provide paleobotanists with a wealth of information, said Dr. Sadowski. Formed from tree resin, amber preserves ancient specimens in three dimensions and reveals “all the delicate features not normally found in other fossil types.”

The flower that caught Dr. Sadowski’s attention was 2.5 cm wide – three times larger than the second largest blossom ever preserved in amber. A colleague had told her about the flower’s “huge” size before she visited it, and she wondered if he was exaggerating. He wasn’t. She then decided to see what 150 years of technological advancement might reveal about Stewartia kowalewskii.

Once she got her hands on the fossil flower, Dr. Sadowski up the amber block with a damp leather cloth and toothpaste—a technique she picked up from her doctoral advisor, Alexander Schmidt, who learned some of his methods from a dentist. Under a powerful microscope, Dr. Sadowski saw perfectly preserved details of the flower’s anatomy, along with pollen grains, which she used to see if the plant had been sorted into the right family 150 years ago.

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Dr. Sadowski scraped grains from near the surface of the amber with a scalpel. “I only do that on a really quiet morning in my office, where no one disturbs me — you need steady hands, not shaking,” she said.

After isolating and imaging the grains, her study co-author, Christa-Charlotte Hofmann of the University of Vienna, examined the pollen, along with microscopic features of the flower’s anatomy. That pointed to an entirely different genus group than had been assigned in 1872: Symplocos, a genus of flowering shrubs and small trees not found in Europe today but widespread in modern East Asia.

The repurposing of the giant flower helps to expand on what scientists know about the ecological diversity of the Baltic amber forest. It also sheds light on how Earth’s climate has changed over the past 35 million years: the presence of Symplocos helps to show that ancient Europe was milder than in most of human history.

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“These tiny grains are natural recorders of past climates and ecosystems that can help us gauge how much our planet has changed in the past due to natural (non-human) causes,” said Regan Dunn, a paleobotanist at La Brea Tar Pits and Museum. he was not involved in the investigation. “This will help us better understand how much our species is affecting the planet.”

While “Jurassic Park” enthusiasts may be disappointed to learn there’s no chance of extracting TBEN from the amber flower, said George Poinar Jr., a scientist whose work inspired the series, that more breakthroughs are bound to come. In his nearly 50 years of studying amber, advances in microscopy have made once-hidden details of ancient organisms dramatic and clear.

“I find it fascinating that people see life that way,” he said.

The post A fossil flower trapped in amber had a mistaken identity for 150 years appeared first on New York Times.