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Chengia laxispicata gen. et sp. nov., a new ephedroid plant from the Early Cretaceous Yixian Formation of western Liaoning, Northeast China: evolutionary, taxonomic, and biogeographic implications

Yong Yang, Longbiao Lin, Qi Wang
BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13: 72
23530702

BACKGROUND: The extant Gnetales include three monotypic families, namely, Ephedraceae (Ephedra), Gnetaceae (Gnetum), and Welwitschiaceae (Welwitschia), all of which possess compound female cones that comprise a main axis and 1 to multiple pairs/whorls of bracts subtending a female reproductive unit or having lower pairs/whorls of bracts sterile. However, the evolutionary origin of such a reproductive architecture in Gnetales is controversial in the light of the competing anthophyte versus gnetifer hypotheses of seed plant relationships. Hence, macrofossils demonstrating the structure of compound female cones of the Gnetales should be important to decipher the early evolution of the order.

RESULTS: A new ephedroid plant Chengia laxispicata gen. et sp. nov. is described from the Early Cretaceous Yixian Formation of western Liaoning, Northeast China. The fossil represents a part of a leafy shooting system with reproductive organs attached. The main shoot bears internodes and swollen nodes, from which lateral branches arise oppositely. Reproductive organs consist of female spikes terminal to twigs or axillary to linear leaves. Spikes are loosely arranged, having prominent nodes and internodes. Bracts of the spikes are decussately opposite and comprise 4-8 pairs of bracts. Each bract subtends an ellipsoid seed. Seeds are sessile, with a thin outer envelope and a distal micropylar tube.

CONCLUSIONS: Chengia laxispicata gen. et sp. nov. provides a missing link between archetypal fertile organs in the crown lineage of the Gnetales and compound female cones of the extant Ephedraceae. Combined with a wealth of Ephedra and ephedroid macrofossils from the Early Cretaceous, we propose a reduction and sterilization hypothesis that the female cone of the extant Ephedraceae may have stemmed from archetypal fertile organs in the crown lineage of the Gnetales. These have undergone sequentially intermediate links similar to female cones of Cretaceous Siphonospermum, Chengia, and Liaoxia by reduction and sterilization of the lower fertile bracts, shortenings of internodes and peduncles as well as loss of reproductive units in all inferior bracts. The basal family Ephedraceae including Ephedra of the extant Gnetales was demonstrated to have considerable diversity by the Early Cretaceous, so an emended familial diagnosis is given here. The Jehol Biota in Northeast China and adjacent areas contains a plethora of well-preserved macrofossils of Ephedra and ephedroids that show different evolutionary stages including primitive and derived characters of Ephedraceae, so Northeast China and adjacent areas may represent either the centre of origination or one of the centres for early diversification of the family.

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