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Chinese And US Scientists Identify The World's Oldest Flowering Plant

floral flower," he said.

Imbedded in a chunk of limestone, the long-extinct plant's remains -- two stems, each about 3 inches long --were found last year in northeast China, near the town of Beipiao about 250 miles northeast of Beijing. They came from a spot known as the Yixian formation, made famous during the last decade or so for its large number of pristine fossils of dinosaurs, insects, fish and other ancient life.

The plant fossil made its way to Sun by way of colleagues and local residents. Sun knew it was a significant find and sought out Dilcher's botanical expertise. In March, Sun brought the specimen to Gainesville and the two scientists spent two weeks poring over it.

A key in identifying it as an early flowering plant was the presence of seeds that were preserved in the fossil. The seeds provided solid proof that this was, indeed, a flowering plant. "If we hadn't gotten a seed out of this thing, we couldn't say what we're saying," Dilcher said.

Because only part of the plant was fossilized much of its appearance remains a mystery. "We don't know if it was a tree or a shrub," Dilcher said, "although common wisdom has it that the early flowering plants may have been probably woody."

Previously, the oldest-known flower was a 115-million-year-old specimen found in Australia about nine years ago. Although Canadian researchers date the Yixian formation at about 120 million years old, Dilcher said Chinese researchers used radiometric dating to place the age of Sun's and his plant at between 142 million and 148 million years old. Not that the difference is worth quibbling over. "Either way," Dilcher said, "this is still the oldest flowering plant."

Furthermore, he said, that distinction may be fleeting.

"I don't think this was the one and only first flower," he said. In fact, other research suggests flowering plants may have existed a few million years before Sun's and Dilcher's.

But all that's been found of the
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Contact: Steve Orlando
sfo@ufl.edu
352-392-0186
University of Florida
26-Nov-1998


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