Pine cone trapped in amber reveals rare and ‘intriguing’ type of plant behavior

Germination of seeds usually occurs in the ground after the seed has fallen, but many of the embryonic stems emerging from an old pine cone have been picked up in a rare botanical act known as early germination, or viviparity, in which the seeds germinate before leaving the fruit.

“That’s part of what makes this discovery so intriguing, that it is even then the first fossil record of plant vitality involving seed germination,” George Poinar Jr., a paleontologist at Oregon State College of Science and author of a study on the discovery, said in a press release.

“I find it great that the seeds in this little pine cone start to germinate inside the cone and the buds can grow so far before they perish in the resin.”

Early germination in pine cones is so rare that only one naturally occurring example of this condition, since 1965, has been described in the scientific literature, Poinar said in the statement.

When seed germination occurs within plants, it tends to be in things like fruit—think of the little peppers you sometimes see when you cut a sweet pepper—but it’s rarer in gymnosperms like conifers that produce “naked” or non-enclosed seeds.

A petrified pine cone is from an extinct species of pine called Pinus cembrifolia. Clusters of needles are shown preserved in Baltic amber, some in bundles of five.

Some of the extraordinary discoveries of paleontology in recent years have come from amber: dinosaur tails, parts of primitive birds, insects, lizards, and flowers have been found buried in balls of tree resin dating back millions of years. Living organisms and plants look like they just died yesterday and are often so exquisitely preserved in detail that would otherwise be lost in crushing fossils formed in rocks.

Based on their location, Poinar said, some, if not most of the stem growth occurred after the pine cone came into contact with the tree’s sticky resin. The research was published in the journal Historical Biology last week.

Poinar has worked on amber fossils for decades, and first discovered in a 1982 study that amber can preserve the intracellular structures of an organism trapped inside. His work inspired science fiction in the “Jurassic Park” book and movie series, in which DNA is extracted from dinosaur blood inside a mosquito trapped in amber to recreate prehistoric creatures.

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