Fossilised pollen grains found in northern Switzerland have been dated to 240 million years ago, before even dinosaurs ruled the earth.
Scientists previously believed that flowers emerged 140 million years ago, during the Early Cretaceous period.
But the latest find seems to confirm the Middle Triassic origins of flowering plants – known as angiosperms – which evolved from extinct cousins of conifers, ginkgos, cycads and seed ferns.
It supports a previous study from 2004, when scientists identified flowering plant-like pollen from cores found at the bottom of the Barents Sea, south of Spitsbergen in Norway.
The new research, led by experts from the University of Zurich, also indicates that early flowers blossomed across a range of early landscapes.
In the Middle Triassic period the Barents Sea and Switzerland were subtropical environments. However, the area surrounding Switzerland was much drier – indicating that these early plants adapted to different ecological conditions.
The newly-discovered pollen grains are so well preserved that scientists can even tell that they were probably pollinated by insects. This is most likely to have been carried out by beetles, since bees did not evolve for another 100 million years.
Writing in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science, the researchers said:
“Together with the previously published records from the Middle Triassic of the Barents Sea area, the angiosperm-like pollen grains reflect a considerable diversity of the parent plants during the Middle Triassic.”
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