North America, Research

A fossil fruit from California shows ancestors of potatoes survived cataclysm that killed the dinosaurs

The discovery of an 80-million-year-old fossil plant pushes back the known origins of lamiids to the Cretaceous period, extending the record of nearly 40,000 species of flowering plants including modern-day staple crops like potatoes, coffee, tomatoes and mint, according to a news release by the University of Kansas.

Brian Atkinson, assistant professor of ecology & evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas and curator of paleobotany at the KU Biodiversity Institute, recently published a study of the fossil plant, named Palaeophytocrene chicoensis, in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Plants.

“This fossil tells us a really diverse group of flowering plants evolved prior to our original understanding,” Atkinson said.

“The fossil belongs to a group of lianas, which are woody vines that add structural complexity to rainforests. It shows us this group of flowering plants appeared super early in the fossil record. There’d been some hypotheses that they were around in the Cretaceous period — but no good clear evidence. This is a great indicator that structurally complex, modern-type rainforests may have been around as early as 80 million years ago.”

According to the KU researcher, the fossil fruit sheds new light on a “critical interval” in the history of life on Earth. “I spent seven years looking for these things [Cretaceous lamiids], and I couldn’t find them,” Atkinson said.

The well-preserved fossil was unearthed in the 1990s by construction crews building housing near Granite Bay in Sacramento, California.

Source: University of Kansas. Full news release here
Photo: Image of fruit belonging to Palaeophytocrene chicoensis. The Sierra College Museum of Natural History is the permanent repository for this fossil. Credit: Brian Atkinson

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