Charles Darwin left behind an incredible scientific legacy. Before his death, Darwin changed how scientists looked at the origins of life on Earth. His Theory of Evolution took hold and became the lens through which scientists investigated the distant past. However, Darwin didn’t just leave behind his knowledge. He also passed down a burning question. The scientists wanted to know how plants evolved so quickly.
Charles Darwin’s enduring mystery goes back to the fossil record. When he passed away in the 1880s, the oldest unambiguous plant fossil was only 130 million years old. It seems strange to put “only” before that large of a number. However, in the scope of biological evolution, that’s not a very long time. In fact. Darwin saw this as an “abominable” mystery, according to Express.
Over the years, attempts to answer Charles Darwin’s question about the origin of plant life resulted in an “unbroken record of failure.” It seems that this is finally changing. In recent years, scientists have discovered several fossilized flowers. Some of those are very similar to plants that currently populate the world. However, one team in China believes that they’ve found the final piece to the puzzle: a transitional fossil, a link between the ancient and the modern.
Answering Charles Darwin’s Burning Question
Put simply, Charles Darwin hoped to find the origin of angiosperms or flowering plants. When he died, the fossil record only showed very old angiosperms that were nearly identical to those we see today. As a result, the biologist was stumped. Surely, these plants couldn’t have sprouted from the ground in their current state.
In 2016, a team of scientists in China discovered the fossil of a “perfect flower” from the Jurassic Period. They dated the fossil at 145 million years old. That plant, called Euanthus, had everything that we see in today’s angiosperms. It had sepals and petals as well as male and female reproductive organs. This was older than the earliest example that Charles Darwin knew about. However, it didn’t answer his question.
Then, two years later, another Chinese team discovered a flower they dubbed Nanjinganthus. This fossilized example was around 174 million years old. This fossil showed a flowering plant that was similar to the angiosperms we see today. However, it was too primitive to actually be called a modern angiosperm. As a result, scientists could say that Charles Darwin was correct. Something came before modern plants. Still, a gap in the record existed.
Now, a third Chinese team has discovered a fossilized flower bud that they’ve named Florigerminis jurassica. They say that it could be the transitional version of angiosperms that Charles Darwin hoped to find more than a century ago.
F. Jurassica is an estimated 164 million years old. That puts it between the too-similar and too-primitive angiosperms. Additionally, it shows a stem connected to a leafy branch, a flower bud, and some type of fruit. The team that found it claims that it is an early angiosperm. Furthermore, they’ve said that their new discovery demands a “rethinking of angiosperm evolution.”