Palaeobotanical redux: revisiting the age of the angiosperms

Abstract

Angiosperms (flowering plants) are the most diverse of all major lineages of land plants and the dominant autotrophs in most terrestrial ecosystems. Their evolutionary and ecological appearance is therefore of considerable interest and has significant implications for understanding patterns of diversification in other lineages, including insects and other animals. More than half a century ago, influential reviews showed that while angiosperms are richly represented in sediments of Late Cretaceous and younger ages, there are no reliable records of angiosperms from pre-Cretaceous rocks. The extensive new macrofossil, mesofossil, and microfossil data that have accumulated since have confirmed and reinforced this pattern. Recently, however, molecular dating methods have raised the possibility that angiosperms may have existed much earlier, and there have been scattered reports of putative angiosperms from Triassic and Jurassic rocks. Critical assessment of these reports shows that, so far, none provide unequivocal evidence of pre-Cretaceous angiosperms. Angiosperms may ultimately be recognized from Jurassic or earlier rocks, but credible palaeobotanical evidence will require unambiguous documentation of the diagnostic structural features that separate angiosperms from other groups of extant and extinct seed plants.

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Figure 1: Fossil ranges of major angiosperm lineages, focused on the Cretaceous diversification.
Figure 2: Illustrations of angiosperm reproductive structures to show derived diagnostic features that characterize flowering plants.
Figure 3: Euanthus panii and seed cone of modern Tsuga diversifolia for comparison.
Figure 4: Solaranthus daohugensis (Aegianthus daohugensis) from the type locality, deposited in the collections of the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology, Beijing, China (specimen number B0252).

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, China for loaning the specimen of Solaranthus daohugensis and C. Pott for photographing this specimen and the Tsuga cone. We thank P. von Knorring for creating Figs 1 and 2. We thank J. Doyle and two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments on the manuscript. This work was funded in part by NSF grant DEB-1348456 to P.S.H. and P.R.C. and the Swedish Research Council grant 2014-5228 to E.M.F.

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All authors contributed to the design and scope of the paper, and evaluations of the fossil taxa discussed in the paper. All authors contributed to writing and revising the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Patrick S. Herendeen.

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Herendeen, P., Friis, E., Pedersen, K. et al. Palaeobotanical redux: revisiting the age of the angiosperms. Nature Plants 3, 17015 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nplants.2017.15

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