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August 18, 2015

New, Oldest Flowering Plant

Montsechia vidalii. Photograph Gomez et al/PNAS

Montsechia vidalii. Photograph Gomez et al/PNAS

New analysis of a fossilized plant found in Central Spain and the Pyrenee Mountains indicate that it may be the world’s first known flowering plant. At 125-130 million years old, Montsechia vidalii dates back to the start of the Cretaceous Period when feathered dinosaurs roamed Earth.

Previously, the oldest known flowering plant was Archeafructus sinensis, found in Liaoning province, China and which dates from 125 million years ago. Like Archeafructus sinensis, Montsechia vidalii grew underwater in shallow lakes and appears to have no roots or petals and only one seed per flower. Its leaves formed either in a spiral or opposite one another.

To get to the fossilized plant, study the ancient plant, Dilcher and his team painstakingly dissolved the limestone around more than 1000 fossils on a “drop-by-drop basis”. The resulting plant fragments were then examined under both light microscopes and scanning electron microscopes.

The plant has been known for years. First discovered over 100 years ago, Dilcher reports that it was misdiagnosed because it “possesses no obvious flower parts, such as petals or nectar-producing structures for attracting insects, and lives out its entire life cycle under water.”

Montsechia vidalii. Photograph Gomez et al/PNAS

Montsechia vidalii. Photograph Gomez et al/PNAS

This is what makes it interesting. As Dilcher pointed out, at that time animals had not developed any role in dispersing seeds. How the plants were fertilized and reproduced may help us understand and mitigate against the risk of pollinator failure in the modern day. Dilcher thinks the plant had separate male and female flowers. The seeds may have been released straight into the water and then floated away to fertilize another plant.

“We need to understand as much as we can about flowering plant evolution because right now we’re facing a world crisis.” Says Dilcher. Most present-day plants require animal pollinators and of course, bees, which are critical, food crop pollinators are declining in Europe and the US.

“This plant shows us where it all began,” says Dilcher. “If we know more about their evolution, we might come across alternative pollinators that are hidden out of sight today but played a role in the past that we could encourage again.”

Journal Reference:

  1. David L. Dilcherd et al. Montsechia, an ancient aquatic angiosperm.PNAS, August 2015 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1509241112