Aquatic Angiosperm: A Cretaceous Origin?

It would seem that yet another piece of the evolutionary puzzle that are flowering plants has been found. I have discussed the paleontological debate centered around the angiosperm lineage in the past (http://bit.ly/1S6WLkf), and I don't think the recent news will put any of it to rest. However, I do think it serves to expand our limited view into the history of flowering plant evolution.

Meet Montsechia vidalii, an extinct species that offers tantalizing evidence that flowering plants were kicking around some 130–125 million years ago, during the early days of the Cretaceous. It is by no means showy and I myself would have a hard time distinguishing its reproductive structures as flowers yet that is indeed what they are thought to be. Detailed (and I mean detailed) analyses of over 1,000 fossilized specimens reveals that the seeds are enclosed in tissue, a true hallmark of the angiosperm lineage.

On top of this feature, the fossils also offer clues to the kind of habitat Montsechia would have been found in. As it turns out, this was an aquatic species. The flowers, instead of poking above the water, would have remained submerged. An opening at the top of each flower would have allowed pollen to float inside for fertilization. Another interesting feature of Montsechia is that it had no roots. Instead, it likely floated around in shallow water.

This is all very similar to another group of extant aquatic flowering plants in the genus Ceratophyllum (often called hornworts or coon's tail). Based on such morphological evidence, it has been agreed that these two groups represent early stem lineages of the angiosperm tree. Coupled with what we now know about the habitat of Archaefructus (http://bit.ly/1S6WLkf), it is becoming evident that the evolution of flowers may have happened in and around water. This in turn brings up many more questions regarding the selective pressures that led to flowers.

What is even more amazing is that these fossils are by no means recent discoveries. They were part of a collection that was excavated in Spain over 100 years ago. Discoveries like this happen all the time. Someone finds a interesting set of fossils that are then stored away on a dark shelf in the bowels of a museum only to be rediscovered decades or even centuries later.

All in all I think this discovery lends credence to the idea that flowering plants are a bit older than we like to think. Also, one should be wary of anyone claiming to have found "the first flower." The idea that there could be a fossil out there that depicts the first anything is flawed a leads to a lot of confusion. Instead, fossils like these represent snapshots in the continuum that is evolution. Each new discovery reveals a little bit more about the evolution of that lineage. We will never find the first flower but we will continue to refine our understanding of life on this planet.

Photo Credits: Bernard Gomeza, Véronique Daviero-Gomeza, Clément Coiffardb, Carles Martín-Closasc, David L. Dilcherd, and O. Sanisidro,

Further Reading:
http://www.pnas.org/content/112/35/10985.abstract

A Real Cliffhanger

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Cliff faces are some of the most interesting habitat types on the planet. Few places in the world are as inhospitable. They are low in nutrient levels, they have limited space for root growth, and offer very little for recruitment. Cliffs do offer some benefits though. They are often sheltered from extremes in climate and can be inaccessible to large herbivores. With that in mind, it is understandable how they can be a haven for some very unique and equally extreme life forms.

One such life form that comes to mind is Borderea chouardii. This strange plant grows only on a couple cliff faces in the Pyrenees mountain range in Spain. It is critically endangered as it represents a relict population of a once tropical Tertiary environment. What makes it more interesting is the double mutualism it has formed with ants. As we have touched on a few times in the past, ants are often recruited as seed dispersers. Borderea chouardii does just that. In many of the observed cases of seed dispersal, researchers found that ants were the culprit. Interestingly enough, a majority of the remaining cases were due to the plant literally planting its own seeds. Known as "skototropism," the stems of the seed cases grow into dark crevices, which are perfect spots for seed to germinate and grow. Surprisingly, gravity plays a very small role in the reproduction of this species.

Let me back up for a bit here. I did mention this plant has a double mutualism with ant species after all. Based on years of observation, researchers found that ants actually served as the most efficient pollinator for Borderea chouardii. This is not a common thing. Generally speaking, ants do not make for effective pollinators. Most species have glands that secrete substances that destroy pollen. However, in a mountainous cliff setting, winged insects are relatively rare, so Borderea chouardii and ants have evolved together into this oddball double mutualism. To add an extra layer of complexity to the system, dare I mention that it isn't just one ant species that Borderea chouardii relies on, but rather 3. Two ant species serve as the pollinators while a a third ant species serves as a seed disperser. This is one risky plant species. The plant gets around the rarity of successful recruitment by living a long time. Individual plants can live upwards of 300 years, which is quite possibly the record for a non-clonal forb species.

Photo Credit: María B. García, Xavier Espadaler, Jens M. Olesen

Further Reading:

http://www.plosone.org/…/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pon…

http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/162110/0