Fire-adapted Gondwanan Angiosperm floras evolved in the Cretaceous
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Background: Fires have been widespread over the last 250 million years, peaking 60-125 million years ago (Ma), and might therefore have played a key role in the evolution of Angiosperms. Yet it is commonly believed that fireprone communities existed only after the global climate became more arid and seasonal 15 Ma. Recent molecular-based studies point to much earlier origins of fireprone Angiosperm floras in Australia and South Africa (to 60 Ma, Paleocene) but even these were constrained by the ages of the clades examined. Results: Using a molecular-dated phylogeny for the great Gondwanan family Proteaceae, with a 113-million-year evolutionary history, we show that the ancestors of many of its characteristic sclerophyll genera, such as Protea, Conospermum, Leucadendron, Petrophile, Adenanthos and Leucospermum (all subfamily Proteoideae), occurred in fireprone habitats from 88 Ma (83-94, 95% HPD, Mid-Upper Cretaceous). This coincided with the highest atmospheric oxygen (combustibility) levels experienced over the past 150 million years. Migration from non-fireprone (essentially rainforest-climate-type) environments was accompanied by the evolution of highly speciose clades with a range of seed storage traits and fire-cued seed release or germination mechanisms that was diagnostic for each clade by 71 Ma, though the ant-dispersed lineage (as a soil seed-storage subclade) was delayed until 45 Ma. Conclusions: Focusing on the widespread 113-million-year-old family Proteaceae, fireproneness among Gondwanan Angiosperm floras can now be traced back almost 90 million years into the fiery Cretaceous. The associated evolution of on-plant (serotiny) and soil seed storage, and later ant dispersal, affirms them as ancient adaptations to fire among flowering plants.
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