It lurked in wait for unsuspecting prey on the swampy Baltic coastline 35–47 million years ago. Now the first fossilised specimens of a carnivorous plant are helping scientists probe the organism’s early evolution and its Eocene habitat.
Researchers from the University of Göttingen in Germany found the fossil of two leaves from the plant in the Jantarny amber mine near Kaliningrad, Russia. It seems to be related to plants from the Roridulaceae family, which catch their prey using long, sticky hairs.
“We were all so excited when we discovered it because it’s very beautiful and striking,” says lead researcher Eva-Maria Sadowski. “It’s amazing to look at something so old, yet so well preserved.”
The fossils were a long way from where this family is endemic: South Africa. “It was surprising to find the fossils in Europe. It suggests they were probably more widely distributed than initially thought and later restricted to a few places,” says co-author Alexander Schmidt.
This plant family is thought to have originated in Africa and became isolated there after the Gondwana supercontinent – comprising modern-day Africa, South America, Madagascar, India, Australia, the Middle East and Antarctica – broke apart about 180 million years ago.
The leaves have hairs that could have been used to capture prey. With only two leaves preserved in the amber, it’s not yet possible to know what the entire plant looked like and what its diet could have been, but the plant family today catches a wide range of arthropods.
The Roridulaceae genus Roridula is a quirk of botanical carnivory, as the plants depend on relationships with other organisms to successfully digest their prey. They trap prey using sticky hairs on their leaves, but depend on a symbiotic species of capsid bug to digest them and then consume their droppings instead. One bug’s demise is another’s gain.