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23 Dec 2021

What happened when the dinosaurs died out

Researchers have identified the huge impact of flowering plants on the evolution of life on Earth.

Flowering plants today include most of the plants humans eat or drink, such as grains, fruits and vegetables, and they build many familiar landscapes such as wetlands, meadows, and forests.

From 100 to 50 million years ago, the flowering plants dramatically boosted Earth’s biodiversity and rebuilt entire ecosystems.

A gymnosperm, Ginkgo yimaensis reconstructed from fossil evidence.
A gymnosperm, Ginkgo yimaensis reconstructed from fossil evidence. Picture: Rebecca Horwitt

Dr Hervé Sauquet, an expert on flower evolution from the Australian Institute of Botanical Science, worked with palaeontologist Professor Michael J. Benton from the University of Bristol and Professor Peter Wilf, a palaeobotanist from Pennsylvania State University, to review the way in which angiosperms rebuilt forests and other habitats on land, and how this contributed to modern biodiversity.

Angiosperms are plants that produce flowers and bear their seeds in fruits.

“Angiosperms owe their success to a whole series of special features,” Dr Sauquet said.

“Biology students all know that the angiosperm flower was an amazing innovation, with special colours and adaptations to make sure particular insects pollinate them successfully.

“But angiosperms also drive the evolution of the animals that pollinate them, mainly insects, and they can build complex forest structures which are homes to thousands of species.

“They can also capture much more of the Sun’s energy than conifers and their relatives, and this extra energy passes through the whole ecosystem.”

Early angiosperm, Archaefructus sinensis reconstructed from fossil evidence.
Early angiosperm, Archaefructus sinensis reconstructed from fossil evidence. Picture: Rebecca Horwitt

Dr Sauquet said typical angiosperm-dominated rainforest may contain hundreds of species of flowering plants, as well as hundreds of species of other plants like ferns and mosses, and thousands of species of fungi, insects, spiders, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

“On the other hand, conifer forests, based around the pine family, for example, contain fewer species of other plants or animals, and they probably were never as species-rich.”

The researchers wrote that when the dinosaurs died out, modern groups of animals could fill their places, but it seems these groups did much more than just replace them like-for-like. The angiosperms became hugely diverse themselves, but they also created enormous numbers of niches for other plants and animals.

Find out more

Download the Australian Institute of Botanical Science prospectus for a detailed look at the vital science work we undertake.

Category: Science
Tags: science
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