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Ferns diversified in shadow of flowering plants

Arlington, Va.--Belying the popular notion of ferns as delicate, lacy relics surmounted by the evolution of flowering plants, biologists have presented evidence for a much different scenario. Their studies indicate that when flowering plants, or angiosperms, evolved some 144 million years ago, ferns took advantage of ecological niches in the new angiosperm forests to diversify into a far richer array of species.

The study offers a new insight into the critical period in evolution when the rise of flowering plants sparked a dramatic increase in species diversity that eventually fostered the rise of birds, bees and mammals, including humans.

As a result of such dynamic ecological opportunism, ferns now comprise more than 10,000 living species, making them the second largest group of vascular plants, following flowering plants.

Duke University researchers Harald Schneider, Eric Schuettpelz and Kathleen Pryer will publish their findings in the April 1, 2004, issue of the journal Nature. The team also includes Raymond Cranfill, Susana Magalln and Richard Lupia.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), the independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, funded the study.

"Pryer and her colleagues have radically revised the textbook story of the rise of the angiosperms by suggesting a more interesting dynamic about ecological interactions molding concurrent patterns of diversification in these two groups," said James Rodman, program director in NSF's division of environmental biology.

The researchers based their findings on concurrent analyses of both the fossil record of plant species as well as genetic studies of existing species. They analyzed the DNA sequences of telltale genes in ferns and angiosperms and found family trees charting the relationships among ferns and angiosperms, which revealed their evolutionary history.


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Contact: Cheryl Dybas
cdybas@nsf.gov
703-292-7734
National Science Foundation
31-Mar-2004


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