THE FIRST FLOWERING PLANTS
125 million years ago
|This Archaefructus liaoningensis fossil is believed to be one of the earliest known specimen of flowering plants. It is from the Yixian Formation in northeastern China, and is dated to about 125 million years ago, during the early Cretaceous.
Credit: Photo by David Dilcher, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida. This photo is used with permission. All rights reserved.
When you think of flowers, you probably think of bouquets, corsages, and perfumes, but you may not realize that flowering plants (called angiosperms) are the dominant form on the earth today, with over 300,000 species known. Before the first flowers, the majority of plants were ferns (including giant, tree-like forms), bushes such as “horsetails”, conifers (including pines, firs, and spruces), and ginkgos. Most of our oil and coal deposits were made from the decomposing matter from these early plants. Starting about 125 million years ago, plants began to develop flowers, essentially sexual organs for reproduction.
Pollination (fertilization) was not only dependent on wind but also on animals, especially insects. Flowers developed spectacular shapes, brilliant colors, fragrant smells, and sweet nectars to attract these insects and carry their pollen (“sperm” from stamens) to fertilize other plants. Flowering plants thus co-evolved with other insects such as bees and flies. For many flowering plants, their fruits are also desired by animals, which eat them and then help spread their seeds. So flowers are not just beautiful and delicate, they are also very powerful agents in helping plants reproduce.
|Today’s variety of flowering plants come in a rainbow of colors, sizes, and shapes.
Credit: Photos by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez/ Wikipedia.
HOW DO WE KNOW?
Fossil evidence for plants with flowers has been found in well-dated geological deposits in China dating to 125 million years ago, including the fossil Archaefuctus. Flowering plants spread rapidly throughout the world, their seeds scattered by the wind, animals, and water.
WHY SHOULD I CARE?
The vast majority of modern human diet is made up of foods produced from flowering plants including wheat, rice, corn, potatoes, and lettuces; foods from flowering plants are also the feed for the animals that we eat today. Flowering plants are also the original source of many medicines used by humans (e.g. aspirin from the willow tree). Flowering plants also provide shelter and building materials for humans (e.g. wood) and shelter for many animals. And we couldn’t imagine our earth without our forests, grasslands, meadows, farms, and wetlands – all of which are filled with flowering plants.
A NOVA segment about the search for the first flowering plants in China.
This is the NOVA webpage that accompanies the video about the first flowering plants.
This is a National Geographic article on the first plants as mainly weeds, growing around the same time as dinosaurs.
This is an article about the importance of flowers from an evolutionary perspective, “Flowering Plants: Keys to Earth’s evolution and human well-being.”
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