updated 6/5/2007 7:52:39 PM ET 2007-06-05T23:52:39

A mushroom found embedded in a 100-million-year-old piece of amber is about 20 million years older than other known mushroom fossils, an Oregon scientist says.

The ancient mushroom is especially interesting because it contains two parasites, one feeding on the mushroom and the other feeding on its fellow parasite.

"I was amazed enough with the mushroom," said George Poinar, a retired entomology professor in Corvallis. "But then seeing the parasites was astonishing. No one has ever seen this three-tier association before."

Poinar, formerly of the University of California at Berkeley, said the mushroom was spotted about a year ago in Burma by Ron Buckley, a registered nurse, photographer and collector of amber fossils from Florence, Ky.

Amber is fossilized tree resin, a sticky substance that oozes from certain pine and legume trees. The resin has chemical properties that act as a natural embalming agent for the ancient creatures that become trapped in it.

Buckley sent the amber specimen to Poinar, who confirmed the discovery and found the parasites.

"This shows how far back mushrooms — and the parasites that infect them — go," Poinar said.

The ancient specimen is similar to pinwheel mushrooms that grow on the bark of modern trees, he said.

"They dotted the trees 100 million years ago, so they probably were tasty treats for the dinosaurs to nibble on," said Poinar.

He received attention last year for his discovery of what is considered the oldest bee ever found — a 100-million-year-old specimen from the same area in northern Burma where the amber is mined. Four kinds of flowers also were embedded in the amber.

Joseph Spatafora, a fungi specialist and a professor of botany and plant pathology at Oregon State University, said the amber discovery is significant because mushroom fossils are rare. Ancient mushrooms — the fruiting bodies of fungi — lack bones or shells, so few survive.

"So the amber specimen can give us a lot of insight to what fungal diversity was at this time in the past," Spatafora said, and gives scientists an idea about fungi's role in forest ecosystems.

Poinar and Buckley reported their discovery in the journal Mycological Research.

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