Flowering plant origins pushed back 100 million years

Confocal laser scanning microscopy of fossilised pollen from Middle Triassic sediment Fossil evidence for origin of flowering plants in the Middle Triassic period (scale bars 10 micrometres)

Related Stories

Flowering plants may have originated more than 100 million years earlier than previously thought, according to scientists in Switzerland and Germany.

The previously oldest known flowering plant-like pollen dates from the Early Cretaceous period.

But the team described six types of fossil pollen grains from older Middle Triassic core samples that closely resemble these earliest examples.

The research is published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science.

Flowering plants - also known as angiosperms - are the most numerous and diverse group of seed-producing plants on land.

All seed-producing plants make pollen, with each grain enclosing the developing male cell used in sexual reproduction.

Life in the Triassic

The Triassic

"That's why plants developed a very tough and resistant wall of organic matter to protect them," explained Professor Peter Hochuli from the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

"In the fossil record we find only this protective wall of the pollen grains."

Based on the increase in abundance and diversity of flowering plants during the Early Cretaceous - approximately 140 million years ago - it has been assumed that they originated in this period.

In the older Triassic samples, Prof Hochuli and his team used confocal laser scanning microscopy to obtain high resolution, three-dimensional images and identified six distinct types of fossilised flowering plant-like pollen based on size, patterning and structure.

"With a few differences...the pollen from the Middle Triassic look exactly the same as the angiosperm pollen from the Early Cretaceous," explained Prof Hochuli.

Taken with previous reports of pollen in Triassic sediment from the Barents Sea with similar features to these suggests that flowering plants originated over a 100 million years earlier in the Middle Triassic period - circa 243 million years ago.

Start Quote

I think part of it is a gap in the observation, one finds what is already known”

End Quote Prof Peter Hochuli University of Zurich

"The number of species found in Switzerland and the from the Barents Sea suggest a rather high diversity and that the group might originate from the Early Triassic or the Late Palaeozoic era," he said.

However, this does leave a period of 100 million years for which there are no records of flowering plant-like pollen.

"I think part of it is a gap in the observation, one finds what is already known. Without my experience from the Barents Sea, I think I would have missed the few tiny grains," Prof Hochuli told BBC Nature.

As the described pollen grains were rare, making up less than 1% of the pollen count, they cannot tell us much about the period's climate.

But according to Prof Hochuli: "The accompanying pollen assemblages tell us that during the Middle Triassic the climate was warm/hot and arid in Central Europe/Switzerland and still warm, but more humid in the Barents Sea area."

In the future they could go on to describe these pollen types as new species. But Prof Hochuli is more interested in finding evidence from other places and from even older sediments, such as the Early Triassic, "that's our next step".

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More from nature

  • Cardinal fish and ostracodFish filmed spitting 'fireworks'

    Film crew captures ostracods' spectacular defensive lightshow that makes predatory fish spit them out.

  • Arapaima'Locally extinct'

    A giant fish which used to dominate the Amazon river is now absent in many areas


  • DragonflyRapid reactions

    Dragonfly's super quick reactions recorded in slow motion by BBC film-makers


  • Wingless adult male of the midge Belgica antarcticaExtreme survivor

    Antarctic midge's small genome may be an adaptation to its extreme environment


  • Myotis midastactus specimen (previously identified as Myotis simus)Golden discovery

    A bat from Bolivia is described as a new species by scientists


  • Dinosaurs 'shrank' to become birds

    Huge meat-eating, land-living dinosaurs evolved into birds by constantly shrinking for over 50 million years, new research shows.

  • Would we starve without bees?

    Honey bees are under threat, and as pollination significantly contributes to the food we eat, what would we do without them?

  • Eggshells may act like 'sunblock'

    Birds' eggs show adaptations in pigment concentration and thickness to allow the right amount of sun for embryos, scientists say.

  • Female shrimps are more aggressive

    Female snapping shrimps are more aggressive than males when defending their territories despite their smaller claw size, a study shows.

BBC iWonder

  • Honey bee close-upInsect intelligence

    Are honey bees as smart as your sat nav?

  • Tyrannosaurus rex skull (c) Mark Williamson / Science Photo LibraryDinosaur dynasty

    One group of dinosaurs survived and their descendants can be seen all around us today


  • Brown rat cluse upRise of the rodent

    Reports of giant, 'super rats' are filling the headlines. But why are we being overrun by rats?


  • Cuckoo portraitHoliday hotspot

    What makes the UK such an attractive destination for visiting wildlife?


There have been 75 solar eclipses and 167 major volcanic eruptions in my lifetime

Nicole Malliotakis on Twitter comments on the events that have happened since she was born by using our personalised Your Life on Earth interactive infographic.

Get Inspired

ACTIVITY FINDER

More Nature Activities >

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.