Flower power allowed many plants to survive the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, reveals new research.
Scientists say that flowering plants – including mint and orchids – escaped “relatively unscathed” due to their ability to adapt.
And, while they suffered some species loss, the cataclysmic event helped them become the dominant type of plant today.
The research team from the University of Bath and Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico explained that there have been several mass extinctions in Earth’s history, the most famous caused by an asteroid impact 66 million years ago.
They believe the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event eradicated at least 75 percent of all species on Earth including the dinosaurs, but until now it’s been unclear what impact it had on flowering plants.
Plants don’t have skeletons or exoskeletons like most animals, meaning fossils are relatively rare, making it hard to understand the timeline of evolution from fossil evidence alone.
Dr. Jamie Thompson, of Bath’s Milner Centre for Evolution, and Mexico’s Dr. Santiago Ramírez-Barahona analyzed evolutionary trees constructed from mutations in the DNA sequences of up to 73,000 living species of flowering plants.
Using advanced statistical methods, they fitted “birth-death” models to estimate the rates of extinction throughout geological time.
Dr. Thompson said that whilst the fossil record shows that many species did disappear, the lineages to which they belong, such as families and orders, survived enough to flourish and then dominate.
The findings, published in the journal Biology Letters, show that out of around 400,000 plant species living today, around 300,000 are flowering plants.
Dr. Thompson says molecular clock evidence suggests that the vast majority of flowering plant families around today existed before the K-Pg event: species including the ancestors of orchids, magnolia and mint all shared Earth with the dinosaurs.
He said: “After most of Earth’s species became extinct at K-Pg, angiosperms took the advantage, similar to the way in which mammals took over after the dinosaurs, and now pretty much all life on Earth depends on flowering plants ecologically.”
Dr. Ramírez-Barahona added: “Flowering plants have a remarkable ability to adapt: they use a variety of seed-dispersal and pollination mechanisms, some have duplicated their entire genomes and others have evolved new ways to photosynthesize.
“This ‘flower power’ is what makes them nature’s true survivors.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker