In 1872, scientists examined a large, fossilized flower preserved in amber from a mine in Russia. They identified it as an extinct flowering evergreen plant named Stewartia kowalewskii. Then, for 150 years, the immortalized blossom sat in a museum collection, unstudied.
Now, researchers have reexamined the specimen and say it suffered from a case of mistaken identity. Using new technologies, they’ve determined that the flower likely came from a different genus entirely: Symplocos, a flowering species that today grows in southeast China and Japan. As such, they proposed a new name for the fossil—Symplocos kowalewskii—and shared more of their findings in a new paper published Thursday in Scientific Reports.
The flower’s redesignation “showcases the importance of revisiting fossils first studied decades ago,” says Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, a paleobiologist at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History who was not involved in the research, to New Scientist’s Jason Arunn Murugesu.
“Exciting discoveries do not only take place in the field, but also by studying the incredible amount of data that lies ‘hidden’ in museum collections,” he tells the publication.
The fossil’s long saga likely began between 34 and 38 million years ago, during the late Eocene, when a blob of sticky resin oozed out of a conifer tree near the Baltic Sea in what is now Russia. The tacky substance coated a large, five-petal flower and, over time, solidified into amber.
Flash forward to the late 19th century, when humans in Kaliningrad, Russia, discovered the amber-encased flower, likely in a mine. At some point, the fossil became part of the collection at the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources in Germany, where it remained—widely forgotten—in a glass case beside examples of modern tree resin.
Then, along came Eva-Maria Sadowski, a paleoecologist and paleobotanist at the Natural History Museum in Berlin. In passing, a retired colleague had mentioned that the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources housed a massive fossilized amber flower that was more than an inch wide—three times larger than the second-largest amber-preserved bloom.
Sadowski thought her colleague was likely exaggerating about the flower’s size and decided to see for herself. Plants encased in amber are uncommon to begin with—just 1 to 3 percent of organisms trapped in Baltic amber are botanical, per the New York Times’ Kate Golembiewski. And large flowers are even rarer, because it takes a lot of resin to surround a big bloom.
“If you found a singular flower, they are usually quite small,” Sadowski says to Scientific American’s Jack Tamisiea.
When she eventually laid eyes on specimen X4088, as it’s officially known, she became even more intrigued. Driven by scientific curiosity, she wondered what new insights she could glean about the fossilized blossom using modern technologies.
Her curiosity paid off. After polishing the block with toothpaste and a damp leather cloth, Sadowski studied the flower under a scanning electron microscope. She noticed that, in addition to preserving the flower’s petals and stamens, the amber had also encased tiny grains of pollen.
Using a scalpel, she carefully scraped off some of the pollen for further study. Through analyzing the pollen and closely inspecting the blossom’s anatomy, Sadowski and her collaborator, Christa-Charlotte Hofmann, concluded that the 19th century scientists who first documented the plant had misidentified it.
“Only an extremely high magnification allows us to see the morphological details of the pollen grains that are only few micrometers in size,” Hofmann, a paleontologist at the University of Vienna, says in a statement.
They determined that the pollen was similar to the Symplocos genus of small, often evergreen trees and shrubs. Their findings suggest the flower isn’t from a known species that exists today, however, other present-day members of the genus do live in some humid, high-altitude forests in Asia.
The flower’s new identity may also offer additional insights into what northern Europe’s Baltic amber forests were like between 34 million and 38 million years ago—and how the area has changed in the intervening millennia.
“These tiny grains are natural recorders of past climates and ecosystems that can help us measure how much our planet has changed in the past due to natural [nonhuman] causes,” says Regan Dunn, a paleoecologist and assistant curator at Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits and Museum who was not involved with the research, to the Times. “This allows us to better understand just how much our species is impacting the planet.”