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Part of the Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries exhibition.
The Liaoning forest of 130 million years ago offers us a glimpse of the world just before flowering plants became common. Today, plants with flowers--called angiosperms--dominate the landscape. Around 80 percent of green plants alive today, from oak trees to grass, are flowering plants. In all of these plants, flowers are part of the reproductive system. But 130 million years ago, flowering plants were rare. Most plants reproduced with spores, found today on ferns, or with seeds and cones, found today on pine trees. The plant fossils found in Liaoning, China, show evidence of plants with spores or seeds--and perhaps one of the first flowering plants.
When paleontologists discover a dinosaur leg bone, they can usually estimate how large the animal was. But when scientists uncover a fossilized leaf, it's difficult to know the size of the whole plant. The leaves on a towering oak tree are small, while those on the stem of a sunflower are much larger. To re-create ancient plants, researchers typically turn to modern plants for clues on size and appearance.
Most plants today have flowers. But when did flowers first evolve? Researchers have found an ancient plant in Liaoning, Archaefructus, that has very small, simple flowers and could be one of the first flowering plants. Archaefructus lived around 130 million years ago and probably grew in or near the water.