110-Million-Year-Old Treasure Found by Scientists – “Something That Was Thought to Be Impossible”

The fossilized leaves belonging to the Welwitschiophyllum plant.
Credit: University of Portsmouth

A remarkable new treasure has been found by scientists from the University of Portsmouth — the first fossil plant gum on record. The beautiful, amber-like material has been discovered in 110 million-year-old fossilized leaves.

University of Portsmouth Ph.D. student Emily Roberts, made the discovery while examining fossilized leaves of the Welwitschiophyllum plant, found in the Crato Formation in Brazil. Emily noticed thin amber-colored bands locked inside some of the fossilized leaves she was studying.

What makes this new ‘gem’ unique is that unlike amber, which is made from fossilized plant resin, this substance is made from fossilized plant gum. Until now, it has been assumed that plant gums cannot survive the fossilization processes. Their water-soluble properties have meant that scientists have always assumed that gum would be dissolved in water, and could not have survived long enough to be preserved in fossil plant remains. As this fossilized gum looks so like amber, it is thought that there may be many other amber-colored substances in fossil plants, wrongly interpreted without chemical confirmation.

Plants produce fluids such as resins and gums, which have different functions within the plant. Resins are a response to wounding and act as a defense against disease and insects. Gums are involved in food storage, structural support and wound sealing. Although gums and resins look similar, they are chemically different and gums are well known to dissolve in water. Previously, only fossilized plant resins (ambers) have been reported.

Emily said: “This new discovery overturns the basic assumption that plant gums cannot be preserved in the fossil record. It has opened our eyes to the fact that other plant chemicals may also be preserved — we can no longer just make assumptions. When we first tested the gum I was astonished that we were confirming something that was thought to be impossible — it just goes to show that fossil plants can surprise us.”

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