This past week, I had the remarkable opportunity of visiting a country that has intrigued me for a very long time, that is, Japan. Since childhood, my older brother and I have been fascinated by this unique nation’s technology, culture, and viable economy that all seemed to have survived the immense devastation caused by the Allied force’s bombing of the country at the end of World War II. Therefore, when we were finally able to track down some cheap airfare and my brother had collected enough hotel points from work-related travel to provide us with free accommodation, we decided that now was the time to visit. Fortunately for us, we happened to arrive in Japan at the beginning of the amazing cherry blossom festival that starts in the middle of March in the country’s ancient capital of Kyoto.
As a lover of flowers, this was a wonderful experience for me and I feel that anyone who has the opportunity to see it should do so at some point in their life. Angiosperms, or flowering plants, contribute greatly to the diverse array of plants found on earth and by doing so, add to the stunning landscapes that make our planet so incredibly beautiful. A recent study conducted at Yale University adds extremely interesting insight to the ongoing debate on just how long ago these marvelous flowering plants first appeared on the plant family tree.
While traditional studies have dated angiosperms as being anywhere from 140 to 190 million years old, the researchers of this study have reason to believe that this estimate could in fact be millions of years ahead of the actual origin of flowers. Michael Donoghue, one of the leaders of the research team, said of the study “If you just looked at the fossil record, you would say that angiosperms originated in the early Cretaceous or late Jurassic. Most molecular divergence times have shown that they might be older than that. But we actually find that they might be Triassic in origin, no one has found a result like that before.”
To arrive at their conclusion, the research team used molecular estimates rather than the traditionally used fossil record to better arrive at an accurate timeline of the life of angiosperms. This new timeline correlates much more closely with the prevailing hypothesis which states that flowering plants had an influential role in the evolutionary development of insects. The previous dating of the origin of angiosperms, however, placed the event as having occurred much after the appearance of the first insects. This, therefore, starkly conflicted with the aforementioned hypothesis.
The question then becomes, why is there such a large disconnect between the fossil record and the molecular data? One hypothesis that the Yale team came up with is that the first flowering plants weren’t abundant enough to leave a lasting mark on the fossil record. The scientists also admit, however, that their own results could in fact be incorrect. The biggest problem with this, however, is that if it is true, then the evolutionary appearance of insects before flowers shown by the fossil record would be left unexplained. Whatever the final conclusion may be, this research study undoubtedly has the potential of having a huge effect on the way scientists think of not only plant evolutionary history, but evolution as a whole.
Discussion Question: Do you think that it is probable that such an important event as the origin of flowering plants could have been left unmarked in the fossil record for a period as large as 80 million years? What sorts of potential problems do you see with this hypothesis?
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