Researchers from the UK and China have discovered that flowers evolved between 149 and 256 million years ago.
They analyzed genetic data on flowering plants and evidence from fossils to come up with the new time frame.
Their work goes against two popular theories about plant evolution – one that says flowering plants are younger, and one that says they are older.
Researchers in the UK and China have discovered that flowers evolved between 149 and 256 million years ago, displacing two popular theories, one of which suggests that they are older and one that says they are younger
Molecular studies have suggested that flowers evolved earlier, but fossil records influenced some scientists to think they are younger.
‘The [new] findings underline the power of using complementary studies based on molecular data and the fossil record,’ the study says.
The researchers analyzed data from 644 taxa for the new study, which was published in the journal New Phytologist.
Lead author Dr Jose Barba-Montoya explained that the age of flowers was previously unclear, saying: ‘The discrepancy between estimates of flowering plant evolution from molecular data and fossil records has caused much debate.
‘Even Darwin described the origin of this group as an “abominable mystery”.’
Dr Barba-Montoya also explained his team’s success, saying: ‘To uncover the key to solving the mystery of when flowers originated, we carefully analyzed the genetic make-up of flowering plants, and the rate at which mutations accumulate in their genomes.’
His team used Bayesian statistical methods to determine the age of flowers.
These methods combined concepts from physics and math, and gave the researchers a model for how the evolutionary rate has changed.
WHEN DID FLOWERS EVOLVE?
New research suggests that flowers diversified quickly, displacing a theory based on molecular studies which suggested they evolved slowly
New research from scientists in the UK and China has concluded that flowers evolved between 149 and 256 million years ago.
Scientists disagree on the age of flowers, with some saying they are older than 259 million years and others saying they are younger than 149 million years.
Gaps in records left by fossils have made it difficult to discern the age of flowers and the rate at which flowering plants diversified.
Researcher Philip Donoghue explained the problem, saying: ‘In large part, the discrepancy between these two approaches is an artifact of false precision on both paleontological and molecular evolutionary timescales.’
The new research suggests that flowering plants diversified quickly.
This finding is opposed to the theory that molecular studies points to, which implies that flowers evolved cryptically.
The team that conducted the new research said that those who base the age of flowers off molecular studies have not taken into consideration ‘experimental variables’.
Study author Ziheng Yang said: ‘Previous studies into molecular timescales failed to explore the implications of experimental variables and so they inaccurately estimate the probable age of flowering plants with undue precision.’
Yang also explained the problem with basing the age of flowers off evidence that comes from fossils, saying: ‘Similarly, interpretations of the fossil record have not fully recognized its shortcomings as an archive of evolutionary history, that is, that the oldest fossil evidence of flowering plants comes from very advanced, not primitive flowering plant lineages.’