Back to life after 1500 years under the ice

PUBLISHED: 11:57 07 March 2018

Moss: It can regenerate after 1500 years under Antarctic ice.

Moss: It can regenerate after 1500 years under Antarctic ice.

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Plants played a crucial role in shaping the richness of life in prehistoric times, says Grace Corne.

Ask any child the name of the animals which lived on Earth in prehistoric times and they will quickly answer ‘dinosaurs.’ Ask anyone to describe and name the plants which grew at that time and the question is most likely to be met with a blank look.

There were certainly mosses and ferns but what evidence is there of the first flowering plants. Would they have lived on land or in water? A piece of stone from north-east China might have helped to provide an answer. It is 125 million years old and bears an imprint of a delicate plant some 50cms tall.

It was almost certainly a water plant because it was thought that the stems were too weak to support it out of the water. In addition fossil fish were found on the rock. There was no indication what the flowers might have looked like but there were certainly signs of ripening seeds in developing fruits. As the female parts were on the tips of the stems and the male organs were further down the stems it seemed likely that the seeds were dispersed by water. Later research suggests that the flower resembled that of a small water-lily.

In 2010 it was reported that a fossil of a plant in flower had been discovered in Southern Argentina in ancient rocks dating to almost 48 million years ago. This seems to have been a member of the daisy family and is quite modern in appearance.

It is believed that the earliest plants were wind-pollinated, but those such as the specimens found in Argentina were almost certainly insect-pollinated. As plants developed and diversified so did the insect population until it reached the extremely high number of species of today. The reverse also happened, for as the insect population expanded so more plant species appeared.

The mosses, which together with ferns, were the original plant colonisers are frequently under-estimated. In 2014 experiments were undertaken to discover just how long mosses could survive if frozen. It was found that mosses which had been frozen in Antarctic ice for more than 1500 years could be brought back into growth.

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