Scientists have found what is now the oldest known flower ever uncovered. The flower, called Montsechia vidalii, was found in Spain and is estimated to be about 130 million years old. At this time, dinosaurs walked the Earth. It is slightly older than Archaefructus sinensis, which was the oldest known flower before this discovery.
It was an aquatic species of plant that would have grown in freshwater lakes in Spain. M. vidalii may be one of the first flowering plants or angiosperms to evolve. There is, however, no definitive ‘first flower’ because the line between the first flowering plants that diverged and the rest of the plants is blurry.
M. vidalii doesn’t resemble the type of flowers people often visualize because it doesn’t have petals. The sole reason flowers have petals is to attract pollinating insects and birds. The earliest known evidence of pollination by insects dates back to about 110 million years ago so this symbiotic relationship between flowers and insects probably hadn’t evolved in the time of M. vidalii. M. vidalii is aquatic so it would probably have released gametes into the water which would find their way to another individual. The aquatic environment was probably important to early flowers. This may be because seeds released into the water only had to be able to float instead of glide through the air to find another member of the species.
To examine the flower, the team lead by David Dilcher from Indiana University, put drops of hydrochloric acid on the rock containing the fossil to dissolve the limestone encasing it. Under high magnification, the team placed small portions of nitric acid and potassium chlorate and was able to analyze the structure of the flower. M. vidalii is classified as an angiosperm because it produced seeds the were contained within a carpal. The plant has several small flowers that each contained a seed.
M. vidalii appears to be an ancient ancestor of the modern day plant hornwort. Hornwort is an aquatic plant that looks similar to M. vidalii and probably has a similar lifecycle.