Research yields understanding of Darwin's 'abominable mystery'

Dec 06, 2012
This figure shows the shift from ferns (blue), conifers (red) and other gymnosperms (orange) to angiosperms (green) in various aquatic environments between 130 million and 84 million years ago.

(Phys.org)—Research by Indiana University paleobotanist David L. Dilcher and colleagues in Europe sheds new light on what Charles Darwin famously called "an abominable mystery": the apparently sudden appearance and rapid spread of flowering plants in the fossil record.

Writing in the , the researchers present a scenario in which , or , evolved and colonized various types of aquatic environments over about 45 million years in the early to middle Cretaceous Period.

Dilcher is professor emeritus at IU Bloomington in the departments of and biology, both in the College of Arts and Sciences. Co-authors of the paper, published online this week, are Clément Coiffard of the Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Research in Berlin and Bernard Gomez and Véronique Daviero-Gomez of the National Center for Scientific Research in Lyon, France.

The paper draws on extensive fossil data from Europe, providing a comprehensive picture of how angiosperms evolved and connecting their evolution with changes in the physical and biological environments. Dilcher, who has studied the rise and spread of flowering plants for decades, said the scenario is consistent with findings from the fossil record in North America, including his own work showing that angiosperms occupied a variety of aquatic and near-.

"This attention to the total picture of plant groups and the paleo-environment begins to form a pattern," Dilcher said. "We're able to turn the pages of time with a little more precision."

Darwin wrote to Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1879, about 20 years after the publication of "On the Origin of Species," that the rapid development of higher plants in recent geological times was "an abominable mystery." The issue has long preoccupied paleobotanists, with competing theories seeking to explain how angiosperms supplanted ferns and gymnosperms in many regions of the globe.

Dilcher and his colleagues show that angiosperms successfully invaded certain environments, gradually spreading to others. They write that angiosperms migrated to new environments in three phases:

  • Freshwater lake-related wetlands between 130 million and 125 million years ago
  • Understory floodplains between 125 million and 100 million years ago
  • Natural levees, back swamps and coastal swamps between 100 million and 84 million years ago
While paleobotanists once focused on collecting fossil flora and trying to make connections with present-day varieties, Dilcher and his colleagues have produced new insights into the evolutionary biology of flowering plants through close analysis of morphology and anatomy.

Dilcher added that co-evolution with insects gave angiosperms an evolutionary advantage. Insects played a vital role in cross-pollinating plants and accelerating the spread of genetic material. Plants evolved the means to "advertise themselves" with fragrances and bright colors while producing pollen and nectar that provided food for insects.

Explore further: Research helps steer mites from bees

More information: www.pnas.org/content/early/201… /1218633110.full.pdf

Related Stories

Darwin's mystery explained

Jul 14, 2009

The appearance of many species of flowering plants on Earth, and especially their relatively rapid dissemination during the Cretaceous (approximately 100 million years ago) can be attributed to their capacity to transform ...

Jurassic insect that mimicked ginkgo leaves discovered

Nov 28, 2012

(Phys.org)—Researchers working in China have discovered an insect that lived 165 million years ago that they believe used its wings to mimic the leaves of an ancient ginkgo tree. The fossil finding, the ...

The co-evolution of plants and mammals examined

Oct 23, 2012

A report at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Raleigh, North Carolina, explores the idea that the evolution of flowering plants (angiosperms) during the Cretaceous Period had a profound ...

Recommended for you

Research helps steer mites from bees

Sep 19, 2014

A Simon Fraser University chemistry professor has found a way to sway mites from their damaging effects on bees that care and feed the all-important queen bee.

Bird brains more precise than humans'

Sep 19, 2014

(Phys.org) —Birds have been found to display superior judgement of their body width compared to humans, in research to help design autonomous aircraft navigation systems.

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

NOM
1.5 / 5 (2) Dec 06, 2012
Flowering plants are able to be altered rapidly by humans. Skilled plant breeders are able to develop or enhance desired traits (e.g. size, colour, flavour) within decades.

Insects have shown to also be veray adaptable, such as rapidly developing insectiside resistance.

Exploitation of flowering plants by insects would have quickly opened up numerous new niches offering plenty of pressure for both plants and insects to adapt. Population explosions of succesful plants and insects would have happened very often, providing even more opportunity and reason to adapt.

So I see no abominal mystery.
88HUX88
1 / 5 (1) Dec 07, 2012
you see because you stand on the shoulders of giants