Letter

Nature 448, 1042-1045 (30 August 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature06039; Received 17 January 2007; Accepted 21 June 2007

Dating the origin of the Orchidaceae from a fossil orchid with its pollinator

Santiago R. Ramírez1, Barbara Gravendeel2, Rodrigo B. Singer3, Charles R. Marshall1,4 & Naomi E. Pierce1

  1. Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, 26 Oxford St., Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA
  2. Nationaal Herbarium Nederland, Universiteit Leiden, P.O. Box 9514, Leiden, The Netherlands
  3. Depto Botânica, Instituto de Biociências, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Av. Bento Gonçalves 9500, RS 91501-970, Porto Alegre, Brasil
  4. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University, 20 Oxford St., Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

Correspondence to: Santiago R. Ramírez1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to S.R.R. (Email: sramirez@oeb.harvard.edu).

Since the time of Darwin1, evolutionary biologists have been fascinated by the spectacular adaptations to insect pollination exhibited by orchids. However, despite being the most diverse plant family on Earth2, the Orchidaceae lack a definitive fossil record and thus many aspects of their evolutionary history remain obscure. Here we report an exquisitely preserved orchid pollinarium (of Meliorchis caribea gen. et sp. nov.) attached to the mesoscutellum of an extinct stingless bee, Proplebeia dominicana, recovered from Miocene amber in the Dominican Republic, that is 15–20 million years (Myr) old3. This discovery constitutes both the first unambiguous fossil of Orchidaceae4 and an unprecedented direct fossil observation of a plant–pollinator interaction5, 6. By applying cladistic methods to a morphological character matrix, we resolve the phylogenetic position of M. caribea within the extant subtribe Goodyerinae (subfamily Orchidoideae). We use the ages of other fossil monocots and M. caribea to calibrate a molecular phylogenetic tree of the Orchidaceae. Our results indicate that the most recent common ancestor of extant orchids lived in the Late Cretaceous (76–84 Myr ago), and also suggest that the dramatic radiation of orchids began shortly after the mass extinctions at the K/T boundary. These results further support the hypothesis of an ancient origin for Orchidaceae.

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