British scientists say what you’re looking at here is the first fossil plant gum on record.
The amber-like material was discovered by University of Portsmouth PhD student Emily Roberts in 110-million-year-old fossilised leaves of the Welwitschiophyllum plant, which were uncovered in the Crato Formation in Brazil.
Plants produce resins and gums, which look similar but have different functions. They also are chemically different, and gums are well known to dissolve in water. Previously, only fossilised plant resins (ambers) have been reported.
“This new discovery overturns the basic assumption that plant gums cannot be preserved in the fossil record,” Roberts says. “It has opened our eyes to the fact that other plant chemicals may also be preserved – we can no longer just make assumptions.”
And that’s not the only surprise uncovered by the research, which is published in the journal Scientific Reports and involved collaboration with the University of Vienna, Austria, and the British Library.
It seems Welwitschiophyllum is related to one of the oldest and most enigmatic plants in existence. Welwitschia, the sole survivor of this lineage, is now found only in the Namib Desert in Namibia and Southern Angola.
“[The] findings confirm that the Welwitschia plant found in Africa today produces a gum similar to a plant growing 110 million years ago in Brazil,” says Portsmouth’s David Martill.
“Welwitschia is one of life’s survivors, thriving in one of the harshest environments on Earth for over 120 million years. This discovery is extremely exciting, especially when put into the context of these two continents of Africa and South America, being one during the Cretaceous period.”