Scientists recently discovered the world’s oldest flower – sort of. The 130 million-year-old plant did not look like the flowers of today, but it still represents a major step in the evolution of plants on Earth. Studying the ancient species may also offer insights into modern day pollination issues like the declining bee population.
There are currently about 400,000 flowering plant species, according to an estimate on Phys.org, but between 130 and 124 million years ago there was just one – Montsechia Vidalii. The species is being labelled the world’s oldest flower, but as paleobotanist and author of a recent study on the species David Dilcher pointed out, that’s only partially true.
“A ‘first flower’ is technically a myth, like the ‘first human.'”
Meaning that it’s very difficult to draw hard lines defining a “flower” in its early stages. According to the Washington Post, Montsechia didn’t have petals, nectar-producing parts or roots, and it lived its entire life-cycle underwater. It was similar to a modern-day Ceratophyllum, also known as “coontail” or “hornwort.”
Its flowers were tiny, each containing a single seed, but that meets the bare-minimum criteria of an angiosperm (the technical name for a flowering plant).
Still, the “world’s oldest flower” sheds light on an essential development in plants, and there’s much more according to Dilcher.
“There’s still much to be discovered about how a few early species of seed-bearing plants eventually gave rise to the enormous, and beautiful, variety of flowers that now populate nearly every environment on Earth.”
Understanding Montsechia might also help solve a worldwide crisis – the rapid decline of pollinators.
Dilcher explained, “One thing is for sure, we need to understand as much as we can about flowering plant evolution because right now we’re facing a world crisis.”
As previously reported by the Inquisitr, the bee population in the U.S. is at a historic low and yearly die-off rates are triple what is considered normal.
Being the oldest flower means Montsechia evolved in a period when there were no bees or other creatures to carry pollen, a process that the world’s modern angiosperms depend on to survive.
Understanding how Montsechia lived in those early times might produce solutions for flowers that might be in similar situations soon, as Dilcher explained.
“This plant shows us where it all began. 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.”
According to the Guardian, scientists believe the ancient species had separate male and female flowers and would drop its seeds directly into the water. The seeds would then float to other plants for pollination.
Likewise, the researchers emphasize that the development of flowers greatly shaped the animals around them – and ultimately us – adding more weight to the research.
“We are a product of the many stages of evolution that went hand-in-hand with the evolution of flowering plants,” Dilcher said.
Whether the Montsechia can really be called the “world’s oldest flower” is a difficult question – there is also a plant called Archaefructus Sinensis from China competing for the title and evidence of earlier angiosperms. But the new insights about the flower may still prove valuable.
The full research on the world’s oldest flower will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
[Image Credit: Bernard Gomez/Indiana University]