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Fossil Friday: Flowering Plants — Darwin’s Abominable Mystery

Photo: Undescribed putative angiosperm from the Crato Formation, by G. Bechly 2008.

This Fossil Friday features an as yet undescribed putative fossil flowering plant from the Lower Cretaceous Crato limestone of northeast Brazil, which was never published before. I photographed this beautiful specimen at a German trader’s collection in July 2008. Flowering plants or angiosperms appear abruptly in the fossil record of the Lower Cretaceous (about 130 million years ago), which of course contradicts the gradualist expectations of Darwinian evolution.

This inconvenient fact troubled Charles Darwin so much that he called it an abominable mystery. I discussed this mystery in a previous article series at Evolution News (Bechly 2021b, 2021c, 2021d, 2021e) and in a podcast at ID the Future (Bechly 2021a). All claims about alleged Jurassic flowering plants have been debunked by experts (Sokoloff et al. 2019Bateman 2020). Botanist Richard Buggs even showed (Buggs 2017a2017b2021) that Darwin’s abominable mystery is not only alive and kicking but in fact became worse with our growing knowledge about the plant fossil record, which clearly proves that this is not an artifact of our insufficient knowledge about an incomplete fossil record.

A Sensational Discovery?

The most recent claim for a Jurassic angiosperm was made by Wang (2021), with the description of an alleged angiosperm fruit Dilcherifructus mexicana from the Middle Jurassic of North America. The fact that such a sensational discovery, which would be akin to finding the holy grail of paleobotany, was published in an arcane journal without an impact factor instead of the cover story in a top-tier journal like Nature should ring all your alarm bells. Indeed, there is a reason this paper was totally ignored by the paleobotanic scientific community. This reason is as simple as it is embarrassing: the paper is total bonkers! 

Here is what Mario Coiro, an expert on plant evolution, wrote on Twitter. He was asked by a colleague what he thinks Dilcherifructus is. He replied, “a Samaropsis-like winged seed. And a proof that plant anatomy is taught so poorly that a gymnosperm-like stoma is mistaken for an angiosperm-like stoma.” This scathing comment says it all. Given the disastrous track record for all alleged Jurassic angiosperms, it will be wise to remain very skeptical when the next such claim should be made. Until then, enjoy the beautiful and diverse paleoflora of the Crato Formation and other contemporary fossil localities, when “angiosperms and their flowers sprang forth during the Cretaceous period, as fully formed as Aphrodite” (Oskin 2015). Exactly as Darwin did not predict.