World's Oldest Known Flower Is 130 Million Years Old06:08
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A large intact specimen of the fossil, Montsechia. Usually only small fragmentary pieces of the fossil are found. (David Dilcher) MoreCloseclosemore
A large intact specimen of the fossil, Montsechia. Usually only small fragmentary pieces of the fossil are found. (David Dilcher)

Scientists believe an ancient aquatic plant that lived alongside dinosaurs is the oldest flowering plant on earth. Or, at least it's the oldest one that's been discovered so far.

Fossilized specimens of the Montsechia vidalii were discovered in the Pyrenees in Spain more than 100 years ago, but an international team of paleobotanists recently analyzed them and discovered that at around 130 million years old, it's the oldest flowering plant yet discovered.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson talked with David Dilcher, a paleobotanist at Indiana University who led the team that analyzed the plant, about what they learned from the study of the Montsechia vidalii.

Interview Highlights: David Dilcher

What does the Montsechia vidalii look like?

“This plant would be very similar to some weedy vegetation if you were out in a lake canoeing and happened to pull up on your paddle some long stringy water weeds. It was a type of water weed that lived submerged in the water. It’s called coontail today and quite common in many lakes all around the world.”

Is it the oldest flower?

“Well the age, given that it’s Barremian, this is lower Cretaceous, age from 130 to 124 million years, there were not very many flowering plants at that time. We do not say this was the first flower in the world. I think the concept of the first flower in the world is really a poetic concept, so like looking for the first human in the world. It’s an idea. However we could say that this is the oldest submerged aquatic plant that we have any fossil record of.”

“Well flowers, you must realize, are all about sex. They are really advertising agents for insects."

David Dilcher

“It was found in some quarries where they were mining for lithographic limestone and this was embedded on the surfaces of the limestone as compression fossils, and people didn't know what to think of it for sure. They thought it might look like a moss, perhaps it might look like conifer twig — they had a lot of different ideas and it’s bounced around for quite some time until my colleague Bernard Gomez of Lyon, France, began to investigate this in detail.”

What’s the significance of early flowering plants?

“Well flowers, you must realize, are all about sex. They are really advertising agents for insects. These are the flowers we know and experience. They were the first advertisers in the world, and they're saying ‘Hey, I’m beautiful. Come and visit me.’ They used animals or insects that were evolving during the Jurassic and lower Cretaceous as carriers for their genetic material. Now the curious thing is that this is a special side branch of flowering plants that developed underwater pollination and they use the water currents within the lakes to disperse their pollen as it was floating down through the water column to the female flowers.”

What’s the greatest takeaway from this discovery?

“We need to begin to reassess our thinking about the antiquity of aquatic plants and their reproductive biology.”

Guest

  • David Dilcher, emeritus professor of Geological Sciences and Paleobotany at Indiana University.

This segment aired on August 18, 2015.

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