A Newly Reported Fossil Could Hold the Key to Understanding Darwin's 'Abominable' Mystery

Scientists in China say they have found the oldest flower bud in the fossil record, finally aligning the fossil evidence with the genetic data  suggesting flowering plants, or angiosperms, evolved tens of millions of years earlier than we initially thought.

The team believes that its discovery would help "lift the anguish" of a centuries-old conundrum that Charles Darwin reportedly labeled "abominable."

If the earliest unambiguous fossil flower is just 130 million years old, how come angiosperms took over ecosystems only 20 to 30 million years later? How did they get such a high level of variety so quickly?

It was a puzzle that had bothered Darwin greatly, but he never found the answers he wanted. In the past few years, however, some crucial pieces have fallen into place.

In 2016, Chinese scientists revealed the finding of a "perfect blossom" from the Jurassic period, more than 145 million years ago.

The fossilized plant, known as Euanthus, contained not just petals, but also sepals (the leafy piece at the base of a bud), as well as male and female reproductive components, including an ovary, which is comparable to current flowers.

Another fossilized flower, Nanjinganthus, was discovered in China in 2018. It was around 174 million years old. Its seeds, like those of modern blooming plants, were entirely encased in an ovary.

However, not all botanists agree that they are real angiosperms. Some claim that these plants are too basic to be classified as flowers, while others believe their structures are too intricate for a gymnosperm, an earlier species of plant with unenclosed seeds and no blossom, such as a conifer.

Florigerminis jurassica, a new fossilized flower bud discovered in China, might be the transitional stage researchers have been seeking for. It was discovered in a deposit over 164 million years ago and is still in outstanding shape.

The plant's stem is connected not only to a flower bud but also to a fruit and a leafy branch – a trio of data that is especially rare. Below, the arrow points to the flower bud, while the top right depicts the fruiting body, and the bottom right image shows the bud.

Flowers are notoriously difficult to discover in pre-Cretaceous fossils due to their fragile architecture. Previous attempts to discover the origins of blooming plants have been dubbed a "unbroken record of failure."

F. jurassica is a once-in-a-lifetime find. Even Nanjinganthus has not been discovered with an entire flower bud, only a flower.

The fruit of F. jurassica lends even more credence to the notion that it is, in fact, an early angiosperm rather than a gymnosperm.

There will undoubtedly be some specialists who disagree, but the authors believe their findings need a "rethinking of angiosperm evolution."

Full study published at: Geological Society, London, Special Publications

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