Those fragrances you enjoy? Dinosaurs liked them first

August 7, 2018 by Steve Lundeberg, Oregon State University
Credit: Oregon State University

The compounds behind the perfumes and colognes you enjoy have been eliciting olfactory excitement since dinosaurs walked the Earth amid the first appearance of flowering plants, new research reveals.

Oregon State University entomologist George Poinar Jr. and his son Greg, a fragrance collector, found evidence that originated in primitive flowers as far back as 100 million years ago as pollinator attractants—a role they still play even though today's flowers also have colorful petals for luring pollinators.

"I bet some of the dinosaurs could have detected the scents of these early flowers," George Poinar said. "In fact, floral essences from these early flowers could even have attracted these giant reptiles."

The Poinars examined amber flowers from Burma, including the now extinct glandular laurel flower (Cascolaurus burmensis) and veined star flower (Tropidogyne pentaptera).

The research revealed that the flower-based chemical compounds that are the basis for the perfumes and colognes we use today have been providing olfactory excitement to pollinating insects and other animals since the mid-Cretaceous Period.

Without colorful petals, flowers from that period had to rely solely on scents to attract pollinators.

"You can't detect scents or analyze the chemical components of fossil flowers, but you can find the tissues responsible for the scents," said George Poinar, professor emeritus in the OSU College of Science.

Credit: Oregon State University

The floral secretory tissues producing these scents include nectaries, glandular trichomes, eliaphores and osmophores.

Nectaries are glands that produce fragrances and sweet deposits that insects love. Glandular trichomes are hairs with cells that make and send out scented secretory products. Eliaphores are stalked aromatic oil glands. Osmophores, also known as floral fragrance glands, are cell clusters specializing in emission.

The study also found that secretory tissues of these Cretaceous flowers are similar in structure to those of their modern descendants. That suggests modern and ancient flowers of the same lineages produced similar essences.

Some of flowers studied were even in the process of emitting compounds at the time they were engulfed by the tree resin that later became amber.

The study also included a milkweed flower (Discoflorus neotropicus) and an acacia flower (Senegalia eocaribbeansis) in 20- to 30-million-year-old Dominican Republic amber.

The anther glands on the fossil acacia flower were especially attractive to bees, one of which was fossilized while visiting the stamens. Today, honeybees are still visiting acacia flowers that have the same type of flora glands that existed in the ancient past.

"It's obvious were producing scents to make themselves more attractive to pollinators long before humans began using perfumes to make themselves more appealing to other humans," George Poinar said.

Findings were published in Historical Biology.

Explore further: Clever bees can identify different flowers by patterns of scent

More information: George Poinar et al, The antiquity of floral secretory tissues that provide today's fragrances, Historical Biology (2018). DOI: 10.1080/08912963.2018.1502288

Related Stories

Plants mimic scent of pollinating beetles

April 3, 2012

The color and scent of flowers and their perception by pollinator insects are believed to have evolved in the course of mutual adaptation. However, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Zurich has now proved that ...

Recommended for you

Tiny 'water bears' can teach us about survival

March 20, 2019

Earth's ultimate survivors can weather extreme heat, cold, radiation and even the vacuum of space. Now the U.S. military hopes these tiny critters called tardigrades can teach us about true toughness.

A decade on, smartphone-like software finally heads to space

March 20, 2019

Once a traditional satellite is launched into space, its physical hardware and computer software stay mostly immutable for the rest of its existence as it orbits the Earth, even as the technology it serves on the ground continues ...

Researchers find hidden proteins in bacteria

March 20, 2019

Scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago have developed a way to identify the beginning of every gene—known as a translation start site or a start codon—in bacterial cell DNA with a single experiment and, through ...

Turn off a light, save a life, says new study

March 20, 2019

We all know that turning off lights and buying energy-efficient appliances affects our financial bottom line. Now, according to a new study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers, we know that saving energy also saves ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

john berry_hobbes
4 / 5 (2) Aug 08, 2018
You know, this site isn't just a news aggregator. They spin headlines to imply things that are not in the story just for hits. Like their failing to take down creationism/climate change denial/personal insult spam.

Hey, they *think* they could have smelled flowers. It's a reptile. Emotions? Why do you think we call an unemotional person, "cold blooded"? Inferring emotions in reptiles is really dicey- when they're alive in front of you. That is just a total BS headline.

It also encourages herp abuse by owners. Most the poor husbandry practices center on thinking they have human emotions. Like stroking a horned toad between the eyes and saying they look like a puppy, closing their eyes. They think they're about to be eaten when they do that. But, hey, who cares? Got a few extra clicks! You would never guess Russian pimps run the site, would you? They have destroyed this site for a few advertising dollars more. I'm sticking with ArsTechnica from now on.
barakn
5 / 5 (1) Aug 08, 2018
It's not a terrible stretch to imagine that an herbivorous dinosaur would be attracted to the smell of a flower, and attraction and liking are almost synonymous. I for one have raised lizards and can confirm that they "like" or prefer certain kinds of food over others. And the whole "cold blooded" thing seems overblown considering evidence that at least some dinosaurs were endotherms and/or were social animals.

But agreed that phys.org has become a haven for climate deniers, racists, creationists, and misogynists.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.