A large intact specimen of the fossil, Montsechia. Usually only small fragmentary pieces of the fossil are found. (David Dilcher)

Researchers believe that a 130-million-year-old aquatic plant from Spain may represent one of the world's first flowers.

Sort of.

In a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists from the United States and Europe report that Montsechia vidalii is as old or older than Archaefructus sinensis, an aquatic plant found in China that's also considered to be one of the first angiosperms. Today,  angiosperms are known for their flowers, but it's not clear when this group of plants began producing beautiful blooms as we think of them today.

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"A 'first flower' is technically a myth, like the 'first human,' " study author and Indiana University paleobotanist David Dilcher said in a statement.

In other words, it's hard to call anything the "first flower" because that would mean drawing a solid line between what we now call flowers and the plants they evolved from.

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But based on their findings, Dilcher and his colleagues believe that Monteschia is old enough to be close to the root of the family tree. 

To evaluate Montsechia, Dilcher and his colleagues studied over 1,000 fossilized remains of the plant, using tiny drops of hydrochloric acid to reveal plant structures hidden by stone.


Illustrations based on fossilized remains show long- and short-leaved forms of the plant and a single seed. (Oscar Sanisidro)

But while that careful evaluation placed the plant within a timeframe of 125 to 130 million years ago, it didn't reveal structures that laypeople would recognize as floral.

"Montsechia possesses no obvious 'flower parts,' such as petals or nectar-producing structures for attracting insects, and lives out its entire life cycle under water," Dilcher said in a statement. "The fruit contains a single seed" — the defining characteristic of an angiosperm — "which is borne upside down."

In fact, the plant probably closely resembled the modern hornwort, which isn't exactly known for its beauty.

"There's still much to be discovered about how a few early species of seed-bearing plants eventually gave rise to the enormous, and beautiful, variety of flowers that now populate nearly every environment on Earth," Dilcher said.

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