Rare fossil flowers and parasitic wasps are amber works of art

Oregon State University fossil research has revealed a subtle fusion of art and science: a long-stemmed flower of a newly described plant species, encased in a 30-million-year-old burial along with a parasitic wasp. Credit: George Poinar Jr., Oregon State University

Oregon State University fossil research has revealed a subtle fusion of art and science: a long-stemmed flower of a newly described plant species, encased in a 30-million-year-old burial along with a parasitic wasp.

“Based on interests, background and current environment, everyone has their own way of interpreting visual images in the natural world,” said George Poinar Jr. of the OSU College of Science. “Thus an organism can be described, given a scientific name, and then stored in a taxonomic hierarchy. The same organism can be considered an art object and even assigned to a certain period of art.”

The study by Poinar, published in Historical Biologyreports the first description of a fossil flower of the family Euphorbiaceae in amber, in this case amber from the Dominican Republic, home to some of the clearest fossilized tree resins in the world.

Members of the Euphorbiaceae, also known as the spurge family, grow worldwide, with 105 of its 300 genera and 1,800 species found in the tropical regions of the Americas.

“Fossil flowers of members of this family are quite rare,” said Poinar. “I could find only one previously known fossil, from sedimentary deposits in Tennessee.”

Examples of members of this family include the rubber tree, the castor oil plant, and the poinsettia. Many members contain a milky latex while some species are useful as a source of oil or wax.

Poinar, an international expert in using plant and animal life forms preserved in amber to learn about the biology and ecology of the distant past, named the new flower Plukenetia minima. It is the first record of the genus Plukenetia on the island of Hispaniola, home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and also the first fossil of the genus.

Poinar said the mature female flower is distinguished by its small size but long stem, which is topped by four distinct capsules.

The wasp, Hambletonia dominicana, was described by Poinar as a new species in a separate paper published in 2020 in Biosis: Biological Systems. It is an entidid, a group of wasps known for attacking a wide range of insects.

In the present study, the flower has already flowered and contains four pods or mature seed capsules. One of the pods contains a developing fly larva.

“In many cases, unrelated organisms are buried together in amber just by chance,” Poinar said. “But I think that in this case, the wasp was drawn away from the flower, either to get the nectar or to try to deposit an egg in the capsule containing the larva of the fly.”

The wasp egg will then hatch, enter the tail and devour the fly larva, Poinar said, enabling the wasp to survive in the ecological zone created by the vegetation and flower heads of the Plukenetia.

“Both fossils can be associated with two 20th-Century art movements that appeared in fine art, design and architecture,” said Poinar. “The ‘petite’ flower represents the Art Nouveau style that emphasizes elegant curves and long lines. The ‘dancing’ wasp represents the Art Deco style that emphasizes sharp angles and decorative shapes.”


Say hello to the venerable flag wasp, killing cockroaches for 25 million years


More information:
George Poinar, Plukenetia minima sp. nov. (Euphorbiaceae) in Dominican Republic amber, Historical Biology (2022). DOI: 10.1080/08912963.2022.2086053

George Poinar, New species of Hambletonia Compere (Hymenoptera: Encyrtidae) in Dominican amber, Biosis: Biological Systems (2020). DOI: 10.37819/biosis.001.04.0070

Provided by Oregon State University

citation: Buried together: rare fossil flower and parasitic wasp for amber artwork (2022, July 11) Retrieved July 11, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-07-entombed-rare-fossil-parasitic -wasp.html

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