Evidence for a Cenozoic radiation of ferns in an angiosperm-dominated canopy.
In today's angiosperm-dominated terrestrial ecosystems, leptosporangiate ferns are truly exceptional--accounting for 80% of the approximately 11,000 nonflowering vascular plant species. Recent studies have shown that this remarkable diversity is mostly the result of a major leptosporangiate radiation beginning in the Cretaceous, following the rise of angiosperms. This pattern is suggestive of an ecological opportunistic response, with the proliferation of flowering plants across the landscape resulting in the formation of many new niches--both on forest floors and within forest canopies--into which leptosporangiate ferns could diversify. At present, one-third of leptosporangiate species grow as epiphytes in the canopies of angiosperm-dominated tropical rain forests. However, we know too little about the evolutionary history of epiphytic ferns to assess whether or not their diversification was in fact linked to the establishment of these forests, as would be predicted by the ecological opportunistic response hypothesis. Here we provide new insight into leptosporangiate diversification and the evolution of epiphytism by integrating a 400-taxon molecular dataset with an expanded set of fossil age constraints. We find evidence for a burst of fern diversification in the Cenozoic, apparently driven by the evolution of epiphytism. Whether this explosive radiation was triggered simply by the establishment of modern angiosperm-dominated tropical rain forest canopies, or spurred on by some other large-scale extrinsic factor (e.g., climate change) remains to be determined. In either case, it is clear that in both the Cretaceous and Cenozoic, leptosporangiate ferns were adept at exploiting newly created niches in angiosperm-dominated ecosystems.
Schuettpelz, E; Pryer, KM
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