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 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers present a scenario in which flowering plants, or angiosperms, 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 geological science 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-aquatic environments.
"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:
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.
Indiana University: http://newsinfo.iu.edu
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In the article on the discovery of dinosaurs (They’re back, Review, 6 June) you state: “In Sussex, a local doctor uncovered fragmentary remains of what appeared to be two more species of colossal extinct land reptiles.” You grossly underplay the contribution of Lewes-born Gideon Mantell, geologist and palaeontologist, author and diarist, friend to princes and international scholars as well as local doctor. Mantell not only discovered (aided by his wife) the first remains of the iguanodon in 1824 but named it – as it resembled the tooth of an iguana. This was the first known land dinosaur, Mary Anning having identified the first sea-living dinosaur.Mantell went on to put together more pieces of the jigsaw with extra fossil discoveries. In contrast to Richard Owen, whose models form the basis for the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, Mantell stated correctly that iguanodon would have walked on their back legs, using their forearms to fight or gather food. He did, however, attribute the thumb spike to a nose horn though later corrected this assumption. The Natural History Museum has a display on Gideon and his wife Mary’s contribution as well as the large “Mantell-piece” of Iguanodon fossils that he had on show in his museum in Brighton. He sold it, along with many more priceless items, to the British Museum in 1838. Gideon Mantell’s reputation deserves better than your throwaway remark. Debby MatthewsLewes, East Sussex Continue reading...
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