By chewing gum! British PhD student discovers first example of fossilized plant gum dating back 110 million years in Brazil
- The gum was found in petrified leaves of the welwitschiophyllum plant
- Gums from plants is involved in food storage and structural support
- Student from the University of Portsmouth found it in the Crato formation in Brazil
- Scientists have overlooked similar fossils because they resemble amber
The first specimen of fossilized plant gum that is 110 million years old has been discovered by a British PhD student.
Emily Roberts, from the University of Portsmouth, found the finding while investigating fossilized leaves of the welwitschiophyllum plant found in the Crato formation in Brazil.
She believes scientists have overlooked similar fossils because they resemble amber.
Plants produce resins such as amber when injured as a defense against diseases and insects, while gums are involved in food storage and structural support.
Although gums and resins look the same, they are chemically different and it is well known that gums dissolve in water.
A university spokesperson said that previously only fossil plant resins were registered.
Plant gum is involved in food storage and structural support. This image shows the gums in the fossil leaves.
“This new discovery destroys the basic assumption that plant gum cannot be stored in the fossil record,” Roberts said.
“It has opened our eyes to the fact that other plant-based chemicals can also be stored – we can no longer make assumptions alone.
“When we first tested the gum, I was surprised to confirm something that was thought impossible – it just proves that fossil plants can surprise us.”
WHAT IS AMBER?
Amber has been used in jewelry for thousands of years and is often found with remarkably well-preserved materials from times long ago.
The golden translucent substance is formed when resin from extinct conifers was hardened and then fossilized.
Often insects, plant material, pollen and other creatures were trapped in the resin, causing them to be trapped inside after it had solidified.
The spokesperson said, “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.
‘So far it has been assumed that plant gum cannot survive the fossilization process.
‘Because of their water-soluble properties, scientists have always assumed that gum would be dissolved in water and could not have survived long enough to be stored in fossil plant remains.
“Because this petrified gum looks so much like amber, it is thought that there are many other amber-colored substances in fossil plants, misinterpreted without chemical confirmation.”
This image shows the fossil gum in a thin section of the fossilized leaf. Previously, only fossilized plant resins such as amber were registered
The gums were found by university student Emily Roberts in fossilized leaves of the Welwitschiophyllum plant (photo)
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, also suggests that the welwitschiophyllum plant is related to one of the oldest plants that have existed – with welwitschia a sole survivor of this genus still found in the Namib desert in Namibia and South Angola.
Co-author Professor David Martill, of the School of Environmental Geography and Geosciences, said: “Not only has Emily discovered something groundbreaking about plant gum, but, perhaps even more surprisingly, her findings confirm that the Welwitschia plant found today in Africa , produces a gum similar to a plant that grows 110 million years ago in Brazil.
“Welwitschia is one of the survivors of life and has been flowering for more than 120 million years in one of the toughest environments on earth.
“This discovery is extremely exciting, especially in the context of these two continents of Africa and South America that are one during the Cretaceous period.”