Is this what the first ever flowers would have looked like?

3 Aug 2017

Flowers that may resemble its earliest ancestors. Image: Shivava/Shutterstock

Using the power of data, researchers have created an image of what it believes one of the first ever flowers on Earth would have looked like.

In an attempt to learn more about the flowers that existed on Earth millions of years ago, a team from the University of Paris-Sud dove deep into the evolutionary biology of plants to reach one possible conclusion.

In a paper published to Nature, the team revealed that it compiled the genetic data of almost 800 flowers from 372 different families, leading to the largest dataset of floral genetic traits ever assembled, at 13,444 referenced data points.

A bisexual plant

Future Human

And so, having crunched the numbers and data, the team came to the conclusion that the first flowers – the common ancestor of everything we see around us today – would have formed anywhere between 140m and 250m years ago, and would look somewhat similar to a lily today.

This would have followed the first appearance of seeded plants, estimated to have existed 350m years ago.

While the beautiful colours in their model are an artist’s conception, the plant was likely bisexual, with an androecium of more than 10 stamens and a gynoecium of more than five carpels.

This was a major breakthrough for the team as, until this latest research, it was unclear as to whether the first flowers would have been either bisexual or unisexual.

Ancient flower

Illustration of what the ancient flower may have looked like. Image: Herve Sauquet/ Université Paris-Sud, France/Juerg Schoenenberger/Nature

Searching for a fossil

Despite appearances, the flower would be completely alien in the world today, as no species on Earth has been proven to have the exact same characteristics as this early plant.

“This implies that all extant flowers, including those of the earliest-diverging lineages of angiosperms, are derived in several aspects,” the authors wrote.

The team admits that the one challenge to its calculations is that there are no fossilised records of such a flower.

The oldest fossilised flower sample dates back to 130m years ago, leaving a noticeable gap of 10m years in evolution. However, the researchers are still confident of its accuracy.

“Although there is a probable time lag in fossil preservation of the earliest angiosperm lineages, the sequence of origin of floral traits in the fossil record is largely consistent with our reconstructed initial stages of floral evolution.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic