What are the Gigantopterids?
If you’re passionate about botany, ancient plants and long-forgotten worlds, Gigantopterids are certainly an interesting topic to delve into.
Evolutionary scientists have been studying the origins of our flowering plants without many answers on the why and how of their emergence.
Even the naturalist Charles Darwin was puzzled by this question, just like many evolutionary biologists of our times.
With origins so engulfed in mystery, biologists, geologists and many other researchers have studied plant fossils in search of answers to how flowering plants evolve. Gigantopterids may give us valuable insight into how plants like roses, tulips or daffodils came into being.
What are Gigantopterids and Why are they so Important?
You may take your plants for granted, you may even know how to best take care of them, but despite our best efforts, the true lineage of our flowering plants is still a mystery unfolding at piecemeal speed.
Scientists studying gigantopterids are a step closer to answers, but there are yet many things left unanswered.
Gigantopterids are fossils of a now-extinct group of plants that existed as far back as 250 million years ago. These fossils were documented as early as 1883, but were studied more extensively only in the 20th century.
They were large-growing plants (hence their name) that are believed to have had global dispersion. Significant fossils of this group of plants have been unearthed in areas of Texas and China.
These fossils have been studied extensively by researchers down to the molecular levels and some findings suggest that gigantopterids may be the closest, ancient relatives of our flowering plants.
Based on the findings of fossil records unearthed throughout the years, we even have data on the size, growth pattern, and an inkling of idea of the preferred growth habitat of these ancient plant groups that made up the Earth’s flora some 250 million years ago.
Size & Growth
Initially, gigantopterids were believed to have grown as scrambling vines, but new data suggests it’s more likely that they grew as self-heading plants.
Their size is believed to have varied between 10 to 20 inches. There’s no doubt that they were robust, impressive plants.
Based on the analysis of fossil remains, gigantopterids had symmetrical leaf structures. The stems were considered to be woody and with spines.
They also produced shoots, much like flowering plants today, although they are not believed to have flowered themselves.
When young, their fronds resembled that of fern fronds today. These were robust plants whose leaves in maturity featured reticulate venation arranged in a frond. They also had a cuticula similarly to that of seed plants.
Based on their variety, some gigantopterids preferred wetlands, while others grew in dry, arid areas. Much like how some varieties of today’s plant genuses prefer tropical areas to desert-like conditions, and vice versa.
Since plant life from that era is difficult to document, these findings are simply assumptions that scientists drew by analyzing gigantopterid remains.
An interesting finding, however, is related to the chemical analysis related to these fossil remains which indicate that gigantopterids produced a chemical compound named oleanane.
This compound has the role of suppressing insects and it’s found in many modern flowering plants as well, but not in others such pine as ginkgoes.
Oleanane and its relation to Gigantopterids and Flowering Plants
So, what can a chemical compound tell us about the origins of our flowering plants? For starters, it can help us place their origins in time.
The chemical compound oleanane found in fossil records is an indication that descendants of flowering plants may have originated in the Permian period, as many as 290 million years ago.
Oleanane offers plants that produce it a defense against fungi, microbes and insects or pests. Molecules of this compound have been extracted through mass spectroscopy and gas chromatography from oily rock deposits.
Because oleanane has not been found in a wide range of other fossilized plants, only in the Permian sediments of Gigantopterids, they’re believed to be the oldest oleanane producing plants on record.
Therefore, gigantopterids may very well be the oldest relatives of flowering plants and they’re an indication that these plants may have evolved together.
With newer techniques available to study fossils on a molecular level, researchers in evolutionary biology are hoping to find even more answers to other questions related to early plant life on Earth.
Next time you glance at a flowering plant in your garden, you’ll maybe look at it with a newfound wonder and amazement, knowing that its ancestry goes back to hundreds of million years to a time about which we have very little knowledge about.
Whether gigantopterids themselves or relatives of this plant group are at the origin of flowering plants, our quest to find answers will surely not stop here and, with time, the questions that puzzle us still may be answered conclusively.