Revealed: the first ever flower, 140m years ago, looked like a magnolia
Although most species of plants on Earth have flowers, the evolutionary origin of flowers themselves are shrouded in mystery. Flowers are the sexual organs of more than 360,000 species of plants alive today, all derived from a single common ancestor in the distant past. This ancestral plant, alive sometime between 250m and 140m years ago, produced the first flowers at a time when the planet was warmer, and richer in oxygen and greenhouse gases than today. A time when dinosaurs roamed primeval landscapes.
But despite the fact dinosaurs went extinct 65m years ago we have a better idea of what an Iguanodon looked like than of how the ancestral flower was built.
The oldest flowering fossil, a 130m-year-old aquatic plant found in modern day Spain. Gomez et al / PNAS
This is partly because these first flowers left no traces. Flowers are fragile structures that only in the luckiest of circumstances can be transformed into fossils. And, as no fossil has been found dating back 140m or more years, scientists have only had a limited sense of what the ultimate ancestor would have looked like. Until now.
A major new study by an international team of botanists has achieved the best reconstruction to date of this ancestral flower. The research, published in Nature Communications, relies not so much on fossils as on studying the characteristics of 800 of its living descendant species.