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Ancient flower fossil points to underwater origins

The world's oldest known flower never bloomed, but it has opened scientific questions into whether all of modern flowering plants share underwater origins.

The newly discovered remains of the oldest, most complete flowering plant show it lived at least 125 million years ago, most likely underwater, said University of Florida (UF) paleobotanist David Dilcher. The discovery is reported in Friday's issue of the journal Science and was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"This Lower Cretaceous fossil challenges many assumptions about the origins of flowering plants," said Quentin Wheeler, director of NSFs division of environmental biology, which funded the research. "Such fossil discoveries combine with advances in the analysis of molecular and morphological evidence from living plants to provide a classification that is the conceptual framework for evolutionary biology."

Although it had no petals, there is no question it was a flowering plant because of the presence of seeds enclosed in an immature fruit, a trait separating flowering plants from all other seed plants, he said.

The discovery is important because it provides clues about how these now-extinct ancestors evolved into modern living flowering plants, said Dilcher.

"Flowering plants are the dominant vegetation in the world today," he said. "They're the basic food crop and fiber source for the world's population.

It's useful for us to understand the relationships among flowering plants, especially in this day of molecular genetic manipulations.

"When you sit down in the morning and have a bowl of Wheaties or cornflakes, that's a flowering plant," he said. "When you eat a beef steak, that's from an animal that ate flowering plants. So, when we study this fossil, we're looking at the ancestry of what sustains us in the world today."

The plant was about 20 inches high with thin stems stretching up in the water to th
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Contact: Cheryl Dybas
cdybas@nsf.gov
703-292-8070
National Science Foundation
2-May-2002


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