As someone who has always been fascinated by fossils, I was amazed at this photo of a plant fossil found recently in China. The now extinct plant was given the Latin name of Leefructus mirus in honor of the Chinese man who donated it to a new museum of paleontology in Liaoning Province. The illustration, from the journal "Nature," shows the 125 million-year-old fossil plant, which is related to our modern-day buttercups. It is one of the oldest and most complete fossils known from the period. Previous plant fossil records from that time are mostly of fossilized pollen grains. In this specimen, almost the entire above-ground plant is visible, with several leaves and even a five-petaled flower. It is so complete and clearly preserved that it looks more like a recently pressed botanical specimen than an ancient fossil.
The fossil was found in an area of Northeast China that is known for yielding unusual fossils, including feathered dinosaurs, early birds, mammals and reptiles. The significance of Leefructus mirus is that it is in a group of plants that descended from earlier, more primitive species. To find it present in 125 million-year-old siltstone leads scientists to conclude that flowering plants were more highly developed during that period than was thought. Scientists have always been puzzled by the explosive spread and diversification of flowering plants in the fossil record. This find may push back the starting date for that rapid proliferation of species. The origin and spread of flowering plants is also linked to the success of early animals, from seed-eaters to many insect, bird and bat pollinators.
Photo above courtesy of Zhiduan Chen