Scientists have long considered cycads to be “living fossils” with minimal evolutionary history, but a recent discovery has surpassed that view.
Cycads, a genus of gymnosperms that can resemble miniature palm trees, have long been considered the least evolved “living fossils” since the time of the dinosaurs. However, a recent discovery in California has cast doubt on this idea, revealing a more dynamic evolutionary history for these plants.
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The discovery was made by two University of Kansas paleobotanists, Andres Elgorriaga and Brian Atkinson. They published their findings in the journal New Phytologist and detailed the discovery of an 80-million-year-old pollen cone found in the Campanian Holtz Shale in Silverado Canyon, California.
Cycads are little known, but they make up a significant part of plant diversity – about 25% of all gymnosperms. They have thick stems and short stature, with thick, palm-like leaves at the top. The plants produce pine-like cones and are relatives of other seed-bearing plants that do not produce flowers, such as ginkgo and the jigsaw monkey tree. Despite their importance, the lack of fossil evidence and the confusion over the years in classifying some fossil specimens have led to an ambiguous scientific understanding of the evolutionary history of these plants.
The prevailing view was that cycads did not undergo significant changes in ancient times. However, the KU researchers analyzed an 80-million-year-old permineralized pollen cone and found that the outer morphology of this pollen cone was different from existing cycads. This finding suggests that cycads are not actually “living fossils” and likely have a more dynamic evolutionary history than previously thought.
Thanks to this discovery, the researchers realized that there were cycads during this time that were really different from what we see today in terms of size, number of pollen sacs, and many other features. Maybe we didn’t find many cycad fossils, or maybe we do find them, but we don’t recognize them because they’re so different from modern ones.
Based in part on the shape of the cone scales, pollen and pollen sacs, they assigned the ancient plant to the genus Skyttegaardia, which was recently identified from isolated cone scales found in Denmark and dated to the early Cretaceous period (about 125 million years ago). . In addition, they dispelled initial doubts about the assignment of the new genus to the cycad group.
Learning more about the new fossil plant, the KU researchers were “quite confident” in their phylogenetic analysis, which showed a positive association between Skyttegaardia and cycads.
The researchers say their description of the primitive plant shows that paleobotany can tell us more about how nature works in deep time. Time, like fossils, can only show us discoveries that are not obvious from studies of living plants or organisms.
This example is a great example of how fossils can contribute to our understanding of evolution over long periods. It also highlights the importance of preserving and studying fossils for future generations to gain insight into the history of life on Earth.
Despite the challenges, the discovery of an 80-million-year-old pollen cone provides a clearer understanding of the evolutionary history of cycads. He argues that these plants are not “living fossils,” but have a more dynamic evolutionary history than previously thought.
Additionally, this discovery highlights the urgent need to protect endangered cycads. They face numerous threats, including habitat loss, climate change and illegal trade. According to Elgorriaga, “the illegal trade of cycads is also a big problem.”
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Ashley Fitzgerald is an accomplished journalist in the field of technology. She currently works as a writer at 24 news breaker. With a deep understanding of the latest technology developments, Ashley’s writing provides readers with insightful analysis and unique perspectives on the industry.