The First Flower?
Sometimes palaeontological discoveries come from newly found fossils and sometimes they come from a re-examination of old ones. The discovery of what is quite possibly the oldest flowering plant ever discovered falls firmly into the latter category.
The plant in question is a comparatively humble species named Montsechia vidalii, first discovered more then 100 years ago in the limestone deposits of Spain’s mountainous Iberian Range. During the early Cretaceous, when Montsechia lived, the area was full of fresh water lakes and it was in these lakes that this diminutive plant thrived. However, its potential importance as the first flowering plant was not recognised until the recent, painstaking work of palaeobotanist David Dilcher from Indiana University who, together with colleagues in Europe, examined around 1,000 different fossil specimens. This analysis led him to conclude that Montsechia was actually the oldest known member of a very auspicious plant group – the Angiosperms.
All flowering plants belong to a group called the Angiosperms. It’s thought they arose sometime in the Early Cretaceous and today they dominate the plant life in all Earth’s ecosystems. They have a catalogue of adaptations which have contributed to this success; at the heart of which lies their unique relationship with pollinators. Before flowers, pollination was a random, haphazard affair using the winds or water currents but Angiosperms evolved ways to control the process, luring in insects and birds, and sometimes mammals, to help them spread. Naturally, therefore, we think of flowers as their most important feature and this is one reason Montsechia languished in palaeontological obscurity for so long. It doesn’t have a flower.
Nevertheless, Montsechia does have a very distinct structure to its seeds which marks it out as an Angiosperm. So this discovery calls for a radical reassessment of how and why flowering plants evolved. What drove these changes if it wasn’t the evolutionary novelty of a flower? Does Montsechia even qualify as a true Angiosperm if it didn’t have petals? Even if it leaves these questions unanswered, this discovery helps researchers begin to narrow down when and where flowering plants first emerged and begins to shed light on a period of evolutionary history which Darwin himself famously referred to as an ‘abominable mystery’.
Reference: Gomez, B., et al. 2015. Montsechia, an ancient aquatic angiosperm. Proceedings of the National Academy. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1509241112