Letters to Nature

Nature 428, 553-557 (1 April 2004) | doi:10.1038/nature02361; Received 5 November 2003; Accepted 22 January 2004

Ferns diversified in the shadow of angiosperms

Harald Schneider1,2, Eric Schuettpelz1, Kathleen M. Pryer1, Raymond Cranfill3, Susana Magallón4 & Richard Lupia5,6

  1. Department of Biology, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708, USA
  2. Albrecht-von-Haller-Institut für Pflanzenwissenschaften, Abteilung Systematische Botanik, Georg-August-Universität, Untere Karspüle 2, 37073 Göttingen, Germany
  3. University Herbarium, University of California, 1001 Valley Life Sciences Building #2465, Berkeley, California 94720, USA
  4. Departamento de Botánica, Instituto de Biología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Circuito Exterior, Anexo al Jardín Botánico, AP 70-233, México DF 04510, Mexico
  5. Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma 73072, USA
  6. School of Geology and Geophysics, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma 73072, USA

Correspondence to: Kathleen M. Pryer1 Email: pryer@duke.edu
Nucleotide sequences newly determined here have been deposited in GenBank under the accession numbers AY459153–AY459171.

The rise of angiosperms during the Cretaceous period is often portrayed as coincident with a dramatic drop in the diversity and abundance of many seed-free vascular plant lineages, including ferns1, 2, 3, 4, 5. This has led to the widespread belief that ferns, once a principal component of terrestrial ecosystems6, succumbed to the ecological predominance of angiosperms and are mostly evolutionary holdovers from the late Palaeozoic/early Mesozoic era. The first appearance of many modern fern genera in the early Tertiary fossil record implies another evolutionary scenario; that is, that the majority of living ferns resulted from a more recent diversification7, 8, 9, 10. But a full understanding of trends in fern diversification and evolution using only palaeobotanical evidence is hindered by the poor taxonomic resolution of the fern fossil record in the Cretaceous11. Here we report divergence time estimates for ferns and angiosperms based on molecular data, with constraints from a reassessment of the fossil record. We show that polypod ferns (> 80% of living fern species) diversified in the Cretaceous, after angiosperms, suggesting perhaps an ecological opportunistic response to the diversification of angiosperms, as angiosperms came to dominate terrestrial ecosystems.

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