Flowering plants, or angiosperms, make up about 90 percent of all terrestrial plants alive today, but the origin of these colorful and fragrant flora has remained something of a mystery. Because of genetic evidence, researchers believe all 225,000-plus species of angiosperm derive from a single ancestor that lived between 140 million and 250 million years ago, but without clear fossil evidence, what this first flower looked like is unknown.
That is, until now. Researchers writing in the journal Nature Communications have compiled the single largest set of data on flowering plants, including data points on 792 flowers, with at least one from each angiosperm order, whether living or fossilized. This immense data was then used to build a chronogram using molecular dating. Basically, a computer was used to number crunch a family tree based on differences that arose through mutations between species, reports Discover.
These mutations would have arisen at a fairly steady rate, so with a large enough data set, you can conceivably keep tracing traits back until you get to a common ancestor. By stripping away derived traits, it's even possible to zero in on what that last common ancestor must have looked like, with a fairly strong degree of certainty. It sounds convoluted, but the method used (Markov Chain Monte Carlo Bayesian computation) is highly tested and respected. So the first flower isn't just some artist's impression.
Aside from generating a depiction of the first flower, researchers also determined that the plant was likely bisexual, with both male and female parts, and had whorl formations of petal-like organs, in sets of three rather than spiral formations. The flower looks unlike any living species. A reconstruction can be viewed atop the page.
What's so useful about this analysis is that it can be tested, either through genetic analysis or by checking it with the fossil record. Some might be surprised by the first flower's sophisticated design. It's important to keep in mind that while this is a representation of the first ancestral flower, that doesn't mean there couldn't have been other quasi-angiosperm predecessors, with rudimentary petals that more closely resembled modified leaves.
Still, it's an impressive reconstruction, a glimpse into evolution without any fossils whatsoever.