Throughout evolution, there have been, time and time again, key biological innovations that have utterly changed history thereafter. Perhaps the most obvious is the one you’re using to read this; the human brain. The development of the anatomically modern human brain has profoundly changed the face of the planet and allowed humans to colonize nearly every part of the globe. But an equally revolutionary innovation from an earlier time stares us in the face each day and goes largely unremarked upon. Flowers. (Stay with me here, guys… ) We think of them as mere window dressing in our lives. Decorations for the kitchen table. But the advent of the flowering plants, or “angiosperms”, has changed the world profoundly, including allowing those magnificent human brains to evolve in the first place.
Having arisen sometime around the late Jurassic to early Cretaceous era (150-190 million years ago), angiosperms come in every form from delicate little herbs to vines and shrubs, to towering rainforest canopy trees. They exist on every continent, including Antarctica, which even humans have failed to develop permanent homes on, and in every type of climate and habitat. They exploded from obscurity to the dominant form of plant life on Earth so fast that Darwin himself called their evolution an “abominable mystery”, and biologists to this day are unable to nail down exactly why they’ve been so incredibly successful. Nearly 90% of all terrestrial plant species alive today are angiosperms. If we measure success by the number of species that exist in a given group, there are two routes by which it can be improved- by increasing the number of distinct species (“speciation”), or by decreasing the rate at which those species go extinct. Let’s take a look at a couple of the features of flowers that have likely made the biggest difference to those metrics.
Picture a world without flowers. The early forests are a sea of green, dominated by ferns, seed ferns, and especially, gymnosperms (that is, conifers and other related groups). Before the angiosperms, reproduction in plants was a game of chance. Accomplished almost exclusively by wind or water, fertilization was haphazard and required large energy inputs to produce huge amounts of spores or pollen grains in order that relatively few would make their way to the desired destination. It was both slow and inefficient.
The appearance of flowers drew animals into the plant reproduction game as carriers for pollen – not for the first time, as a small number of gymnosperms are known to be insect pollinated – but at a level of control and specificity never before seen. Angiosperms have recruited ants, bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, birds, and even small mammals such as bats and lemurs to do their business for them. The stunning variety of shapes, sizes, colours, and odours of flowers in the world today have arisen to seduce and retain this range of pollinators. Some plant species are generalists, while others have evolved to attract a single pollinator species, as in the case of bee orchids, or plants using buzz pollination, in which a bumblebee must vibrate the pollen loose with its flight muscles. In return, of course, the pollinators are rewarded with nectar or nutritious excess pollen. Or are at least tricked into thinking they will be. Angiosperms are paying animals to do their reproductive work for them, and thanks to incentivisation, the animals are doing so with gusto. Having a corps of workers whose survival is linked to their successful pollination has allowed the flowering plants to breed and expand their populations and territory quickly, like the invading force they are, and has lowered extinction rates in this group well below that of their competitors. But what happens when you expand into new territory to find that your pollinators don’t exist there? Or members of your own species are simply too few and far between for effective breeding?
Another unique feature that came with flowers is the ability to self-fertilise. “Selfing”, as it’s called, is a boon to the survival of plants in areas where pollinators can be hard to come by, such as very high latitudes or elevations; pollen simply fertilises its own flower or another flower on the same plant. Selfing can also aid sparse populations of plants that are moving into new territories, since another of its species doesn’t need to be nearby for reproductive success. It even saves on energy, since the flower doesn’t have to produce pleasant odours or nectar rewards to attract pollinators. Around half of all angiosperms can self-fertilise, although only 10-15% do so as their primary means of reproduction. Why, you may ask, since it’s such an effective strategy? Well, it’s an effective short term strategy. Because the same genetic material keeps getting reused, essentially, in each successive generation (it is inbreeding, after all), over time the diversity in a population goes down, and harmful mutations creep in that can’t be purged via the genetic mix-and-match that goes on in normal sexual reproduction. Selfing as a sole means of procreation is a slow ticket to extinction, which is why most plants that do it use a dual strategy of outbreeding when possible and inbreeding when necessary. As a short term strategy, however, it can allow a group of new colonists to an area to survive long enough to build up a breeding population and, in cases where that population stays isolated from the original group, eventually develop into a new species of its own. This is how angiosperms got to be practically everywhere… they move into new areas and use special means to survive there until they can turn into something new. I’m greatly simplifying here, of course, and there are additional mechanisms at play, but this starts to give an idea of what an unstoppable force our pretty dinnertable centrepieces really are.
Angiosperms are, above all, adaptable. Their history of utilising all possible avenues to ensure reproductive success is unparalleled. As I mentioned, we have the humble flower to thank for our own existence. Angiosperms are the foundation of the human – and most mammal – diets. Both humans and their livestock are nourished primarily on grasses (wheat, rice, corn, etc.), one of the latest-evolving groups of angiosperms (with tiny, plain flowers that you barely notice and which, just to complicate the point I’m trying to make here, are wind-pollinated). Not to mention that every fruit, and nearly every other type of plant matter you’ve ever eaten also come from angiosperms. They are everywhere. So the next time you buy flowers for that special someone, spare a moment to appreciate this world-changing sexual revolution in the palm of your hand.
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- Wright et al. (2013) Proc. Biol. Sci. 280(1760): 20130133
**Top image by Madhutvin on Wikimedia Commons **