The world’s first known flower has been unveiled by scientists – beating the previous record by an astonishing 50 million years.
It bloomed more than 174 million years ago during the Early Jurassic period – helping nourish huge plant eating dinosaurs.
It looks like modern plum blossom and had four or five petals and has been named Nanjinganthus dendrostyla – after where it was unearthed.
Almost 200 specimens have been dug up at a dinosaur graveyard in eastern China – shedding fresh light on the evolution of flowers.
Flowering plants, or angiosperms, had been thought to have emerged around 125 million years ago in the Cretaceous – when bees and other pollinating insects appeared.
Palaeontologist Fu Qiang said: “Researchers were not certain where and how flowers came into existence because it seems many flowers just popped up in the Cretaceous from nowhere.
“Studying fossil flowers – especially those from earlier geologic periods – is the only reliable way to get an answer to these questions.”
His team studied 264 samples of 198 individual flowers preserved on 34 slabs of rock slabs from the South Xiangshan Formation.
The outcrop in the Nanjing region is about 190 miles from Shanghai and is renowned for bearing fossils from the Early Jurassic.
Dinosaurs were flourishing as huge herds of herbivores – such as Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus – roamed alongside meat-eating predators like Allosaurus and T Rex.
Nanjinganthus pushes back the “origin of flowering plants 50 million years” from the record of previously available fossils, said the international team.
The Early Jurassic saw dinosaurs dominating the planet and the discovery reshapes the current understanding of the evolution of flowers.
The study, published in the journal eLife, backs chemical analysis of prehistoric plants suggesting flowers must have appeared earlier than 130 million years ago owing to their complexity.
Nanjinganthus now provides offers fossil evidence that extends the evolutionary timeline.
Dr Qiang, of the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NIGPAS), said its unexpected characteristics throws widely accepted theories of plant evolution into question.
Due to the abundance of samples his researchers could dissect some and scan them them with powerful microscopes.
The high-resolution pictures – from different angles and with different magnifications – allowed them to see the features of Nanjinganthus in unprecedented detail.
The key feature of angiosperms is the presence of fully enclosed ovules – pre-cursors of seeds before pollination.
A reconstruction of the flower showed it had a cup-shaped receptacle with a roof that enclosed the seeds. The discovery was crucial – since this confirms it was a flower.
The researchers now hope to determine if Nanjinganthus represents a stem group giving rise to all later species – or represents an evolutionary dead end.
Plant scientist Professor Wang Xin, also of NIGPAS, said: “The origin of angiosperms has long been an academic headache for many botanists.
“Our discovery has moved the botany field forward and will allow a better understanding of angiosperms.”
Plants are either angiosperms or gymnosperms. The former have seeds enclosed within an ovary – usually a fruit.
The latter have no flowers or fruits with seeds on the surface of scales or leaves – often seen as cones.
The origin of angiosperms, or flowers, origin has been hotly debated by evolutionary biologists for years.
Senior author Prof Wang added: “The origin of angiosperms has long been an academic ‘headache’ for many botanists.
“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.”
By Mark Waghorn
Since you’re here …
We do not charge or put articles behind a paywall. If you can, please show your appreciation for our free content by donating whatever you think is fair to help keep TLE growing.
Every penny we collect from donations supports vital investigative and independent journalism. You can also help us grow by inviting your friends to follow us on social media.