Solving the 'abominable mystery'

Last updated: 5 Feb, 2018

Flowers might have been brightening our world for much longer than previously thought. A new study by researchers from the UK and China, published in New Phytologist, may have uncovered the key to solving Darwin’s ‘abominable mystery’.


The fossil record suggests that flowering plants suddenly appeared on the scene in what’s termed the Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution. Pollinators, herbivores, and their predators, also underwent explosive co-evolution at the same time, taking advantage of the new wealth of diversity.


Image: Passion flower


Molecular-clock dating studies suggest a much older origin for flowering plants, however. This suggests that we may have missed a much earlier, cryptic evolution of flowers, not captured in the fossil record. The discrepancy between palaeontological and molecular estimates of the appearance of flowering plants has been the source of heated debate. The apparent explosive evolution of flowering plants in the mid-Cretaceous led Darwin to describe their origin as an ‘abominable mystery’.


Researchers from the UK and China believe they have uncovered the key to solving this mystery. By carefully analysing the rate at which mutations build up in the genomes of flowering plants, the researchers have concluded that flowering plants are neither as old as suggested by molecular studies, nor as young as a literal interpretation of the fossil record.


Continue reading on the New Phyt blog.


Read the paper: Barba-Montoya, J., dos Reis, M., Schneider, H., Donoghue, P.C.J., Yang, Z. (2018) Constraining uncertainty in the timescale of angiosperm evolution and the veracity of a Cretaceous Terrestrial RevolutionNew Phytologist. doi: 10.1111/nph.15011




Mike Whitfield (@mgwhitfield)
Development Coordinator
New Phytologist