Identifying A Fossil

For a flower trapped in amber, a very long case of mistaken identity.

When Eva-Maria Sadowski, a researcher at the Natural History Museum in Berlin, took a close look at the biggest fossil flower ever found preserved amber, all she had in mind was seeing what a century and half of technological advances could tell her about it.

But the result was to clear up a 150-year-old case of mistaken identity and develop a clearer picture of what the Baltic amber forest of Northern Europe looked like 33 million years ago.

The preserved flower was found in the 19th century in territory that is now part of Russia. In 1872, scientists classified it as Stewartia kowalewskii, an extinct flowering evergreen. That identification stood until Dr. Sadowski's paper was published in Scientific Reports.

Among Baltic amber specimens, fewer than 3 percent are botanical. This may be partly because animals wander into pools of resin while plants have to fall in. Amber, formed into tree resin, preserves specimens in three dimensions, revealing delicate features not normally obtained in other fossils.

The flower that caught Dr. Sadowski's eye was an inch wide [about 2.5 centimeters].

Under a microscope, she found details of the flower's anatomy, along with specks of pollen. She scraped grains from near the amber's surface with a scalpel. The study's co-author, Christa-Charlotte Hofmann, then investigated the pollen and the flower's anatomy.

The results pointed to a different genus that was assigned in 1872 : Symplocos, a genus of shrubs and small trees not found in Europe today but widespread in modern East Asia.

The presence of Symplocos suggests that ancient Europe was balmier than it has been for most of human history [ Kate Golembiewski ].


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