The ancient flower was first studied in 1998, but it was misclassified as a gymnosperm. A recent reexamination found that it was actually the oldest angiosperm ever found in Northwest China.
A team of Chinese scientists has identified the fossil of an ancient plant dating back to roughly 170 million years ago, making it the earliest known angiosperm in Northwest China.
The team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, Lanzhou University, Ningxia Geological Museum, and Northwest University recently announced the groundbreaking discovery in the international biological journal, Life.
In the study, they reported finding flower buds in a fossil measuring 17 millimeters long by nine millimeters wide — or just over half an inch long and a quarter-inch wide — with oval-shaped buds attached to a 15-millimeter (half-inch) stalk.
Study lead Wang Xin told the Global Times that the fossil belonged to a group of plants known as angiosperms, the most evolved and diverse plants on Earth today.
“There are over 300,000 species of angiosperms in the extant world,” he said.
This was not the first study to examine this 170 million-year-old fossil, though. Back in 1998, researchers examined the ancient plant and classified it as a gymnosperm, a plant with seeds unprotected by flowers or fruit, similar to conifers or ginkgo. Researchers at the time named it Drepanolepis formosa Zhang.
However, a reexamination of the fossil using micro-CT technology — a non-destructive X-ray technique that captures 3D structures at micrometer-scale resolution — revealed that this ancient plant actually had an inverted, small ovum protected by a tough outer layer. This characteristic is a key feature of angiosperms.
Based on this new information, the team renamed the ancient flower Qingganninginfructus formosa.
“Qingganninginfructus formosa is found in large quantities in a wide area in Northwest China, including Qinghai, Gansu, and Ningxia,” Wang said. “Its discovery indicates that angiosperms emerged and were widely distributed as early as about 170 million years ago, that is, during the Middle Jurassic, and reached a certain degree of prosperity. It also provides a new reference basis for the scientific community to continue to trace the origin and evolution of angiosperms.”
The Middle Jurassic period (174 to 163 million years ago) was marked by a significant change to Earth’s topography. Pangea had started to split apart, forming two other major landmasses, Laurasia and Gondwanaland, as well as the Atlantic Ocean. Terrestrial and marine life also saw new, notable evolutions, including the first cetiosaurs, brachiosaurs, megalosaurs, and hypsilophodonts, per Geology Page.
Interestingly, this period was also defined by an abundance of gymnosperms, specifically conifers, ginkgoes, and cycads. This information makes the original 1998 classification perhaps more understandable — and also makes Qingganninginfructus formosa a more unique plant for its time.
After reading about the ancient flower Qingganninginfructus formosa, learn about the 558-million-year-old fossil belonging to Earth’s oldest animal. Then, read about the 518-million-year-old fossil that sheds new light on evolution in ancient oceans.