Flower power: Ancestors of modern-day plants survived mass extinction of the dinosaurs

BATH, United Kingdom — A groundbreaking new study reveals that the resiliency of flowering plants allowed them to survive the cataclysmic event that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. In fact, scientists say these plants not only survived but eventually became the dominant form of plant life on Earth.

A team of scientists from the University of Bath in the United Kingdom and Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico delved into the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event. This massive die-off eradicated at least 75 percent of all species on Earth, including the dinosaurs. The researchers specifically investigated how flowering plants fared during this period. Unlike animals, plants don’t have skeletons or shells, making them hard to study through fossils alone.

Asteroid striking Earth
(© James Thew – stock.adobe.com)

The study, led by Dr. Jamie Thompson of Bath’s Milner Centre for Evolution and Dr. Santiago Ramírez-Barahona, used advanced statistical methods to analyze the DNA sequences of up to 73,000 living species of flowering plants. They estimated rates of extinction across geological time using what are known as “birth-death” models.

“After most of Earth’s species became extinct at K-Pg, angiosperms took the advantage, similar to the way in which mammals took over after the dinosaurs, and now pretty much all life on Earth depends on flowering plants ecologically,” says Dr. Thompson in a media release.

The findings demonstrate that out of approximately 400,000 plant species alive today, about 300,000 are flowering plants. Further, the researchers noted that most of the flowering plant families around today existed before the K-Pg event, meaning species like the ancestors of modern-day orchids, magnolia, and mint were around when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

The researchers further highlight the resiliency of flowering plants, pointing out their unique survival tactics.

“Flowering plants have a remarkable ability to adapt: they use a variety of seed-dispersal and pollination mechanisms, some have duplicated their entire genomes and others have evolved new ways to photosynthesize. This ‘flower power’ is what makes them nature’s true survivors,” Dr. Ramírez-Barahona says.

The research not only gives us insight into the past but could also help scientists understand how plants might respond to future global changes, including climate change and habitat loss.

The study is published in the journal Biology Letters.

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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