Fossils suggest flowers originated 50 million years earlier than thought

December 18, 2018, eLife
Nanjinganthus fossil, showing its ovary (bottom centre), sepals and petals (on the sides) and a tree-shaped top. Credit: Fu et al., 2018

Scientists have described a fossil plant species that suggests flowers bloomed in the Early Jurassic, more than 174 million years ago, according to new research in the open-access journal eLife.

Before now, angiosperms (flowering plants) were thought to have a history of no more than 130 million years. The discovery of the novel flower species, which the study authors named Nanjinganthus dendrostyla, throws widely accepted theories of plant evolution into question, by suggesting that they existed around 50 million years earlier. Nanjinganthus also has a variety of 'unexpected' characteristics according to almost all of these theories.

Angiosperms are an important member of the plant kingdom, and their origin has been the topic of long-standing debate among . Many previously thought angiosperms could be no more than 130 million years old. However, molecular clocks have indicated that they must be older than this. Until now, there has been no convincing fossil-based evidence to prove that they existed further back in time.

"Researchers were not certain where and how came into existence because it seems that many flowers just popped up in the Cretaceous from nowhere," explains lead author Qiang Fu, Associate Research Professor at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology, China. "Studying fossil flowers, especially those from earlier geologic periods, is the only reliable way to get an answer to these questions."

The team studied 264 specimens of 198 individual flowers preserved on 34 rock slabs from the South Xiangshan Formation—an outcrop of rocks in the Nanjing region of China renowned for bearing fossils from the Early Jurassic epoch. The abundance of fossil samples used in the study allowed the researchers to dissect some of them and study them with sophisticated microscopy, providing high-resolution pictures of the flowers from different angles and magnifications. They then used this detailed information about the shape and structure of the different fossil flowers to reconstruct the features of Nanjinganthus dendrostyla.

The key feature of an is 'angio-ovuly' - the presence of fully enclosed ovules, which are precursors of seeds before pollination. In the current study, the reconstructed flower was found to have a cup-form receptacle and ovarian roof that together enclose the ovules/seeds. This was a crucial discovery, because the presence of this feature confirmed the flower's status as an angiosperm. Although there have been reports of angiosperms from the Middle-Late Jurassic epochs in northeastern China, there are structural features of Nanjinganthus that distinguish it from these other specimens and suggest that it is a new genus of angiosperms.

Idealized reconstruction of Nanjinganthus. Credit: NIGPAS

Having made this discovery, the team now wants to understand whether angiosperms are either monophyletic—which would mean Nanjinganthus represents a stem group giving rise to all later species—or polyphyletic, whereby Nanjinganthus represents an evolutionary dead end and has little to do with many later species.

"The origin of angiosperms has long been an academic 'headache' for many botanists," concludes senior author Xin Wang, Research Professor at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology. "Our discovery has moved the botany field forward and will allow a better understanding of angiosperms, which in turn will enhance our ability to efficiently use and look after our planet's plant-based resources."

Explore further: Ancient flower fossil points to core eudicot boom 99 million years ago

More information: Qiang Fu et al, An unexpected noncarpellate epigynous flower from the Jurassic of China, eLife (2018). DOI: 10.7554/eLife.38827

Related Stories

Charred flowers and the fossil record

June 13, 2017

One of the main types of fossil used to understand the first flowering plants (angiosperms) are charred flowers. These charcoals were produced in ancient wildfires, and they provide some evidence for the types of plants that ...

Under the Microscope #5 - Daisy

February 6, 2012

In this video Dr Beverley Glover explains how a daisy is a collection of tiny flowers grouped together to make it look like a single big flower.

Recommended for you

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 ...

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.

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 ...

0 comments

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.