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Rutgers professor discovers unknown species of flower

Lena Struwe discovered a flower frozen in amber 15 million years ago. The sample should help scientists learn more about conditions on Earth at the time. – Photo by Photo by | The Daily Targum

A new plant species of flower has been discovered right here on campus. 

Lena Struwe, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources and Department of Plant Biology and Pathology, discovered a new species of asterid flower trapped within amber for at least 15 million years. The discovery is one Struwe considers “serendipitous” as it arrived as a surprise in her email inbox.

Struwe is also director of the Chrysler Herbarium, an organization dedicated to storing plant, algae and fungi samples for scientists to research.

"Strychnos electri" is the first fossilized flower from the asterid lineage found in the New World, according to the official discovery report published in the journal Nature Plants.

This asterid lineage is a large group of plant families that include coffee beans, milk weeds and potatoes, according to the report.

George Poinar Jr., co-author of the study, is an entomologist at Oregon State University, and has been looking for insect fossils trapped within amber for most of his career, Struwe said.

Poinar performed an expedition in 1986 in the Dominican Republic and explored an amber mine. These mines are home to sticky resins, which were once a part of living trees and attracted insects and plants. When the resin fossilized, Struwe said it became amber.

These amber pieces normally only contain animal fossils, and it is rare to find plant fossils. It was not until later that Poinar realized these pieces contained plant fossils, she said.

"Strychnos electri" belongs to the order Gentianales which includes five families. The newly discovered species belongs to the small Loganiaceae family, containing 13 to 15 types of flower groups. 

The genus "Strychnos" is very old and includes many pantropical species which survive in dry and wet climates, according to the report.

“I have been working with plants from this family since I was an undergraduate student,” Struwe said. "Poinar knew of my extensive work with the Loganiaceae family, and asked if I could take a look at some potential Loganiaceae amber fossils."

Poinar’s research showed the amber pieces containing the fossils were resin from tall trees which were once part of a large tropical forest. These clumps of resins then fell to the ground and were transformed into amber through geological processes. The amber was eventually deposited into the ocean, she said.

Eventually, Struwe saidthe amber containing the fossilized insects and plants underwent sedimentation and were lifted again onto land that later formed the present-day Dominican Republic.

“We do not know anything about this forest except for what we can find in the amber pieces. There were no humans 15 million years ago. This is our snapshot of what the forest looked like 15 million years ago in this part of the world," She said.

Researchers can recreate this ecosystem to study the types of plants, insects, pollinators, parasites and vegetation which existed in this area, Struwe said.

“The modern genera we see in the New World might have been there for longer than we expect. We can compare the modern genera to this fossil to see how this genus has evolved throughout time,” she said.

It is difficult to say what will happen to this plant family in the future, Struwe said. But the environmental impact left by the human race will affect plants in the future.

Discoveries like this can help aid a recent human phenomena known as plant blindness, she said. 

Plant blindness is the "inability to see or notice the plants in one's own environment," according to the David Suzuki Foundation. It can prevent people from understanding the significance of plants in their immediate lives.

“Plants are the underpinning of terrestrial life,” Struwe said.

This newly discovered fossil opens people’s eyes to the beauty in nature in the past and present, she said. This could be a stepping stone for people to learn more about plants in general. 

Many forget about the important relationship humans have with plants. The majority of the food people eat is plant based, Struwe said.

Findings like this help people see what is close to them, said Carlos Olivares, a School of Environmental and Biological sciences junior and a volunteer at the Chrysler Herbarium.

"(This study) excites me and makes me want to do more research and learn more about plant life culturally and holistically,” he said. 

The digital age and access to herbariums allows plant information to be shared more easily, allowing serendipitous studies like these to be possible, Struwe said.

“Rutgers is right there. We are a part of this scientific community making all of this possible now,” Struwe said.


Francesca Petrucci is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum. Find her on Twitter @TheFranWeekly for more.

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