The Water Lily – A Part of Early Cretaceous Flora

If you were able to travel back in time to the Early Cretaceous (125 million years ago), a time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, you might feel that you were in a very alien environment.  The plants would be dominated by horsetails and ferns, trees would consist of conifers as the common broad-leaved trees of today (angiosperms) had not yet evolved.  The large terrestrial animals would all be reptiles, most notably the dinosaurs and if you were lucky enough to see a bird or two they would look very different to the typical birds that you might see in the park or in your garden.  However, if you were to find a stretch of water, you might come across one plant in the shallows or perhaps in the margins that you would recognise – the humble water lily.  Consider the water lily as Cretaceous flowers in a pond.

Cretaceous Flowers

Palaeobotanists (scientists who specialise in studying ancient plant life), have identified the water lilies and their relatives as some of the first flowering plants to evolve (Nymphaeales).  Although the delicate and fragile nature of plants makes their preservation as fossils an exceptionally rare event, scientists believe that the water lily family evolved from gymnosperms (seed plants whose seed is not enclosed in an outer covering), sometime between 125 million and 115 million years ago.  The fossil record for plants is exceptionally poor, what fossils that have been found have permitted palaeobotanists to piece together how true, flowering plants (the angiosperms) evolved from gymnosperms and the water lily and its close relatives seem to be part of a basal group of flowering plants indicating that they are close to plant types that first diverged from the gymnosperm group.

Ancient Type of Flowering Plant – The Water Lily

From the time of the dinosaurs.

Picture credit: Everything Dinosaur

Ancient Water Lilies

Ancient water lilies would only have been superficially similar to the modern varieties seen in ornamental fish ponds.  Like many early flowering plants, the actual flowers on the first types of water lily were much smaller than their modern counterparts.  However, the round leaves and growth habit surmised from close examination of 125 million year old fossil remains was very similar to extant water lily species.  It seems that the humble water lily, so often a feature in a pond garden can trace its history to the time of the dinosaurs, when herbivorous iguanodontids and hungry hypsilophodonts may have dined on its succulent roots and round leaves.  There are about seventy species today, plus of course, a large number of varieties bred by growers for the gardening market, but these soil rooted plants whose leaves float on the surface of water can trace their roots back to the Early Cretaceous, to the very origins of the flowering plants.

It has been suggested that plants in water had a better chance of surviving to breed and to evolve into new species over tens of thousands of years, as land plants were subjected to the efficient grazing of herbivorous dinosaurs aided by the increase in insect types during the Mesozoic.  Fossils of ancient water lilies have been found in Portugal and there is even a suggestion of a crushed and flattened fossil of a water lily-type plant having been found in Utah, at a location that reveals a number of Jurassic-aged dinosaur tracks and footprints.

Everything Dinosaur stocks a range of prehistoric plant models and replicas of ancient trees.

To view these models: Prehistoric Plant Models and Tree Replicas (CollectA).

Fossils of sea-lilies (crinoids) are often mistaken for water lily fossils by the untrained observer.  Crinoids may superficially resemble plants but they are entirely marine animals related to sea urchins (Echinoderms).  Crinoids filter out small food particles using arm-like tentacles that superficially resemble the heads of flowers.  Fossils of these creatures are far more numerous than fossils of their name sake (lilies), however, thanks to the few fragmentary fossils we do have from Lower Cretaceous deposits it seems that the water lily can trace its roots (no pun intended) back to the age of the dinosaurs.  Next time you see a water lily in a garden pond or a print of one of the famous Monet water lilies oil paintings, remember that dinosaurs such as Iguanodon may also have observed something similar.