In the latest issue of the journal Science you’ll find a commentary essay entitled: “The origins of flowering plants and pollinators“, written by Casper van der Kooi and myself. It’s open access so do go and read it.
This commentary brings together some recent findings in palaeontology, molecular phylogenetics, and pollinator sensory physiology and behaviour, to discuss the progress that’s been made in understanding the deep-time evolution of this most familiar and charismatic of ecological interactions.
The short version is that the old conceptual models are absolutely wrong. Some version of “first came the gymnosperms and they were primitive and unsuccessful because they were wind pollinated. Then, at the start of the Cretaceous, the angiosperms evolved and they were insect pollinated and advanced and so more successful” continues to appear in text books. But we’ve known for a long time that many of the Jurassic gymnosperms were insect pollinated. This may (or may not) predate insect pollination of angiosperms: there are huge disagreements between palaeobotanists and molecular phylogeneticists about when the first flowering plants evolved. The graphic above comes from our essay and shows just how big the discrepancy is: molecular models suggest an origin for the angiosperms about 70 million years prior to the first confirmed fossils. That’s about equivalent to the whole of the Jurassic period! There are similar disagreements when it comes to the evolution of pollinating insects: for the Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) the difference between the earlier molecular and later fossil evidence may be as much as 100 million years.
As we discuss, there are huge implications in these discrepancies for understanding not just how major elements within the Earth’s biodiversity evolved, but also for the origins of pollinator sensory physiology. Insect behaviours linked to colour vision and odour reception may in turn influence effective crop and wild plant pollination.
The image accompanying our essay is by the very talented biologist, science communicator and graphic designer Elzemiek Zinkstok – follow that link and check out her work.