Scientists say this is probably what the most recent common ancestor of all flowers looked like.
It would have lived some time between 140 million and 250 million years ago. Its descendants – flowering plants, or "angiosperms" – now make up more than 90% of all plant life on earth.
Scientists at the Université Paris-Sud and elsewhere looked at the genetic makeup and physical forms of nearly 800 species of flower. Using that data, they were able to estimate which features of modern flowers were probably present when the ancestor lived, and which evolved afterwards. The paper is published in the journal Nature Communications.
The ancestral flower wasn't necessarily the first flower – just the most recent flower that all modern flowers are descended from. That flower might have come from a long line of flowers before it.
The ancestral flower, they think, probably contained both male and female sexual organs, and at least 10 petals, as well as whorls of smaller petal-like organs, sepals, which exist in modern plants. It would have been radially symmetrical – that is, it would have been roughly circular. And it would have had at least 10 stamens, the long, slender, pollen-producing male sexual organ.
No modern flower displays exactly this combination of features.
"It makes perfect sense," Dr Jason Hilton, a palaeobotanist at the University of Birmingham, told BuzzFeed News. "This is good science." It solves a mystery that has gone back to the time of Charles Darwin, he said.
"Darwin considered the origins of flowering plants to be a mystery, because there were no obvious links between them and other groups of seed plants recognised in the fossil record," said Hilton. "Since then we’ve found a lot more fossils, and we know a lot more about the morphology of extinct flowers, but the identity of flowering plant ancestors remains elusive.
"Working out what the ancestor of flowering plants looked like will be crucial to determining what they evolved from."
Tom Chivers is a science writer for BuzzFeed and is based in London.
Contact Tom Chivers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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