Following the time of the dinosaurs, it might well be that the evolution of flowering plants drove the explosion in the diversity of life on Earth, according to a 2021 paper.

Most of the plants we now eat, drink, wear, and build with are of the flowering variety. They’re called angiosperms, which roughly translates from Greek as ‘seed vessels’.

“More than a million species of modern insects owe their livelihoods to angiosperms, as pollinators such as bees and wasps, as leaf-eaters such as beetles, locusts, and bugs, or feeding on nectar such as butterflies,” says Pennsylvania State University paleobotanist Peter Wilf.

“And these insects are eaten by spiders, lizards, birds, and mammals.”

Hundreds of millions of years ago, it’s been suggested that most species on Earth lived in the oceans – which makes sense given these watery places cover over 70 percent of our planet’s surface. But today, most of life’s diversity is found on land.

In a recently published literature review, University of Bristol paleobiologist Michael Benton and colleagues argue this changeover, which is thought to have occurred around 100 million years ago, was driven by flowering plants. It coincided with several innovations in angiosperm biology.

This was around the time when many of the plant families we know today arose according to molecular timelines, which included a massive increase in fruit and seed size – a driver for the evolution of more fruit-eating animals.

Above: The rise of angiosperms coincided with massive expansions in the biodiversity of modern plants, fungi, and animals. (Mike Benton/New Phytologist Trust)

“Flowering plants might have been around for some time, but they began to appear more commonly in the Cretaceous, in the last 70 million years of the age of dinosaurs,” says Benton.

“But it seems that dinosaurs didn’t choose to eat them, and continued chomping ferns and conifers such as pines. However, it was only after the dinosaurs had gone that angiosperms really took off on evolutionary terms.”

The team has called this event the Angiosperm Terrestrial Revolution, and suspects we’ve overlooked it previously because it was punctured by the dramatic extinction event that knocked non-avian dinosaurs out of the picture.

That asteroid impact destroyed many types of creatures, including 70 percent of marine species; but when life rebounded, it was the insects, birds, mammals, and reptiles on land who won out.

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