January 29, 2023

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

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

“I did it without any expectations,” she said, “I just did it because I was curious.”

Her curiosity has pulled the thread of a more than 150-year-old case of mistaken identity, leading to a clearer picture of what the amber forest in the Baltic Sea in northern Europe looked like more than 33 million years ago.

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

The identity of the Baltic ambergris flower was not revised until Dr. Sadoski’s paper in Scientific reports It was posted Thursday.

Plants in amber are rare. Of the Baltic amber samples, only 1 percent to 3 percent of the trapped organisms are vegetarian. This may be due to amber collectors’ bias towards animals, but it may also be due to animals wandering around in puddles of sticky resin while plants are forced to accidentally fall into it.

While it is difficult to obtain, Dr. Sadowski said, the plants found in amber provide paleobotanists with a wealth of information. Amber, which is made from tree resin, preserves ancient specimens in three dimensions, revealing “all the subtle features you don’t usually get in other fossil types.”

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The flower that caught Dr. Sadowski’s eye was an inch across – three times larger than the next largest flower preserved in amber ever discovered. A colleague told her of the “enormous” size of the flower before she looked for it, and she wondered if he was exaggerating. It wasn’t. Then she decided to see what 150 years of technological advancement could reveal about Stewartia kowalewskii.

Once she had the flower fossil on hand, Dr. Sadoski polished the amber nugget with a dampened leather cloth and toothpaste—a technique she picked up from her PhD advisor, Alexander Schmidt, who learned some of his methods from a dentist. Under a powerful microscope, Dr. Sadowski saw perfectly preserved details of flower anatomy, along with pollen spots, which she used to see if a plant had been classified in the correct family 150 years earlier.

Dr. Sadowski scraped the grains from near the surface of the amber with a scalpel. “I only do it on very quiet mornings in my office, where I’m not disturbed by anyone—you need my hands steady, not trembling,” she said.

After the granules were isolated and photographed, study co-author Christa Charlotte Hoffmann of the University of Vienna examined the pollen grains, along with microscopic features of the flower’s anatomy. That points to a very different genus than was identified in 1872: Symplocos, a genus of flowering shrubs and small trees not found in Europe today but widespread in modern-day East Asia.

The giant flower’s reimagining helps flesh out what scientists know about the biodiversity 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 show that ancient Europe was much milder than it was for most of human history.

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said Regan Dunn, a paleobotanist at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum and museum who was not involved in the research. “This allows us to better understand the impact of our species on the planet.”

While “Jurassic Park” Enthusiasts may be disappointed to learn that there is no chance of getting DNA from an amber flower. There are bound to be more breakthroughs, said George Poinar Jr., the scientist whose work inspired the series. In the nearly 50 years he has been studying amber, advances in microscopy have made hidden details of ancient organisms exciting and apparent.

“I think it’s great for people to see life like that,” he said.