Scientists have discovered two flower specimens entombed in ancient sap that belong to a genus notorious for producing the deadly toxin strychnine. Findings of the study were published Monday in the journal Nature Plants. The now extinct plant, named Strychnos electri, lived 20 million to 30 million years. Scientists named it after the Greek word for amber or fossilized tree sap (elektron).
The flower was remarkably well-preserved
Way back in 1986, the Oregon State University entomologist Professor George Poinar collected about 500 fossils during a field trip to the Dominican Republic. Most of them were insects that kept him busy for almost three decades. Only recently his eyes settled on the remarkably well-preserved flowers. Researchers were amazed at the remarkable state of preservation of the small tubular-shaped flower measuring about 10mm in the tan-colored amber.
Most plant fossils found in amber are usually just fragments. Last year, Poinar sent high-resolution pictures of the flower to Rutgers University botanist Lena Struwe because he had a suspicion that it might be Strychnos. Professor Struwe compared the physical structure of the flowers to all the 200 known species of the genus Strychnos. The newly discovered flower Strychnos electri belonged to the same Asterid family that gives us coffee beans, potatoes, and tomatoes.
Poison was their defense against herbivores
As it belonged to the genus Strychnos, this particular was toxic. Professor Poinar said, “Species of the genus Strychnos are almost all toxic in some way.” Alkaloids in some plants are more toxic than others. Strychnos were successful because their toxins provided some defense against herbivores. Strychine works by disrupting the nerve impulses that govern muscle contractions. First, it causes a sense of restlessness and agitation, followed by violent muscle spasms and eventual suffocation.
Strychine was one of Norman Bates’ murder weapons in the movie Psycho. It once formed the basis of rat poisons. The latest discovery is an important addition to the fossil record of the Asterid family.