An Extinct Dinosaur-Era Plant Has Been Rediscovered In North America

Lychnothamnus barbatus. Paul Skawinski/University of Wisconsin Extension

Jonathan O`Callaghan 01 Aug 2017, 14:43

A plant thought to have died during the age of the dinosaurs has been found growing on modern Earth, in what has been heralded as a pretty remarkable discovery.

Known as Lychnothamnus barbatus, this large green alga was discovered by scientists led by the New York Botanical Garden. Although native to other parts of the world, it was thought to have died out in North America long ago. The last record of it comes from the Cretaceous era, more than 66 million years ago.

Its rediscovery, however, suggests one of two things. Either it has been brought here accidentally by incoming ships. Or, more interestingly, it may never have gone extinct in North America at all. The findings are described in the American Journal of Botany.

"Almost right away we knew we might be dealing with something previously thought to be extinct because it was clearly different from any other species seen in North America," said Richard McCourt from Drexel University in Philadelphia, one of the study’s co-authors who helped identify the samples, in a statement.

Previously, the Characeae algae had only been seen in parts of Europe and Australasia. It grows to about 1 foot (0.3 meters) tall though and has a pretty distinct shape, so the researchers were unsure why it had been missed in North America. It’s known as a stonewort algae, which usually occur in fresh water, attached to the muddy bottoms of rivers and lakes.

A clump of Lychnothamnus barbatus. Paul Skawinski/University of Wisconsin Extension

“Because this taxon is not known for aggressive invasiveness in its native range, it may have existed in heretofore-undiscovered native populations, although the possibility that it is a recent introduction cannot be eliminated,” the team wrote in their paper.

To confirm its identity, the scientists extracted DNA from the samples they found. These were discovered in 14 lakes across Wisconsin, and two in Minnesota, between 2012 and 2016. It may even be more widespread than thought in North America, but the researchers aren't entirely sure exactly where to find it.

But its discovery is certainly exciting, as it hints that other plants thought to be extinct may be around. “The potential for discovery of novel lineages of green algae in even well-studied regions is apparently far from exhausted,” the researchers said.

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