Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Amber Preservation Of A Very Large Flower

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature of Science, Paleontology, Biodiversity, Biological Evolution

Ed Hessler

Amber comes in a variety of colors. My favorite is golden yellow which makes it appear warm and sometimes glowing. When it was a sticky resin it quite often entraps bits and pieces of plants, ants, spiders which sometimes fossilizes, preserving them. Given the right conditions these can last for millions of years.

Museum collections sometimes also "entrap" these fossils for long periods of time  before they are examined closely or can be examined more closely as tools to examine them are developed. When this happens there is often a stir in the research community when a surprisingly well-preserved embedded specimen is found.

Science reporter Jack Tarnisiea has a story in Scientific American about a recent rediscovery. The inclusion had been described more than 150 years ago and was of "a nearly 40-million-year-old fossilized flower...the largest flower ever. The specimen was found near the Baltic Sea, an amber "hotspot." In a study published in Scientific Reports."

What makes this specimen so valuable to science, other than the size (28 mm across; nearly 3" inches. The reported widths are different in the scientific paper and the SA essay.) Furthermore, details of flower structure, including pollen that was preserved are of remarkable quality, sufficient to allow researchers to establish evolutionary relationships. 
In addition, as you will note in the scientific paper is that the researchers were fortunate in the timing of the pollen's preservation. This plant was given a scientific name in 1872, Stewartia kowalewskii in 1872 and then stored. It was recently re-discovered and the quality of the pollen allowed a research team using new scientific tools to study the specimen very closely.

The recent study published in Scientific Reports "proposed," writes Tarnisiea, that "it be renamed Symplocos kowalewskii, making it the first record of an ancient Symplocos plant preserved in Baltic amber." The scientific paper is largely a technical description and you can read it for details. The paper includes many images of the "gold encased flower and flower parts."

The scientific paper briefly mentions that amber has properties that inhibit the degradation process (it turns out is a biocide), making amber an "exceptional preservative."

The scientific paper includes a discussion of the ecology of the area and the authors conclude that S. kowalewskii was likely a constituent of mixed-angiosperm-conifer forests in the Baltic amber source area and supports its affinities to evergreen broadleaved and mixed mesophytic forests of present-day East and Southeast Asia."

Eva-Maria Sadowski, a paleobotanist at Berlin’s Museum of Natural History–Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science was alerted to this specimen by a retired colleague and Tarnisiea tells us she "immediately knew it was something special, and she jumped at the opportunity to reexamine one of these historical specimens with cutting-edge technology."

For your own benefit, read the Scientific American report for the general and popular story, scan the scientific paper for the photographs but there are other important sections to look at more closely, e.g., the abstract with the paper giving you an idea of the process leading to revision. Revision requires these details which provide the evidence on which the decision was based. 
I like Jill LaPore (The New Yorker, January 16, 2023) description of the process: "painstakingly researched and kept kissing close to the evidence."

No comments:

Post a Comment