Scientists discover the oldest flowers originated from early Jurassic

Siltstone slabs bearing Nanjinganthus. Credit: NIGPAS.

Scientists have found new evidence of the world’s earliest fossil flower from specimens unearthed in the eastern China city of Nanjing, dating the origin of flowering plants to 174 million years ago, or the Early Jurassic.

An international research team led by scientists from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology has made an observation of the specimens, which contain 198 individual flowers preserved on 34 slabs.

They named the flower, which has four to five petals and looks like modern plum blossom, Nanjinganthus.

The research pushed the origin of flowering plants 50 million years earlier than the record of previously available fossils, which suggested flowering plants appeared about 125 million years ago in the Cretaceous, an era during which many insects such as bees appeared.

The Early Jurassic is known as the period that saw dinosaurs dominating the planet. The discovery reshapes the current understanding of the evolution of flowers.

Wang Xin, a researcher at the institute, said the abundance of specimens with flowers preserved in different states and details allow researchers to dissect the features unique to a true flower — ovules or seeds enclosed inside an ovary.

The flowers preserved on the fossils are mostly concentrated in groups. A flower is 10 mm in diameter. Scientists cannot recognize the maturity of the seeds. There are one to three seeds in an ovary.

From oranges to apples, flowering plants produce most of the fruits and vegetables that we can see today. There are more than 300,000 varieties of flowering plants on the planet.

“It is incredible to make the fossil discovery in such a modern city,” said Fu Qiang, a researcher at the institute, who was the first to discover the fossils in Nanjing in 2016.

The scientists hope further investigation would lead to more discoveries of the derivation pathway of flowering plants.

The research program was participated by scientists from the University of Vigo in Spain and the Queensland Herbarium in Australia.

The paper on the research was published on Tuesday by the British life science journal of eLife.

Source: Chinese Academy of Sciences.