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Death of the dinosaurs helped grapes conquer the world

From Jurassic Park to school textbooks, dinosaurs have always been a hot topic. But how often do we hear about the unseen impact of their extinction, such as the spread of a universally loved fruit – the grape? Fascinating new research gives us insight into this unexpected connection.

Study lead author Fabiany Herrera is an assistant curator of paleobotany at the Field Museum in Chicago’s Negaunee Integrative Research Center.

Herrera and his team have stumbled upon a discovery that shifts our understanding of how the humble grape became a global superstar in the fruit world.

Nine new fossil grape species

The researchers have identified nine new species of fossil grapes, some aging up to 60 million years.

The seeds were unearthed in Colombia, Panama, and Peru. One of these ancient seeds represents the oldest known plant from the grape family on our side of the planet.

“These are the oldest grapes ever found in this part of the world, and they’re a few million years younger than the oldest ones ever found on the other side of the planet,” said Herrera.

“This discovery is important because it shows that after the extinction of the dinosaurs, grapes really started to spread across the world.”

Dinosaurs and their botanical impact

While we often think of T-rex and his brethren when discussing the dinosaur extinction, we overlook the colossal botanical changes that were set in motion. 

“The forest reset itself, in a way that changed the composition of the plants,” explained Herrera.

This means that the dinosaur’s departure may have reshaped the forest, thus creating a more favorable environment for grapes.

Denser forests after dinosaur departure 

Study co-author Mónica Carvalho, an assistant curator at the University of Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology, shed light on this relationship. 

“Large animals, such as dinosaurs, are known to alter their surrounding ecosystems. They likely maintained forests more open by knocking down trees.” 

Once these “lumberjacks” disappeared, some forests, especially in South America, became denser – a grapevine dream come true.

”In the fossil record, we start to see more plants that use vines to climb up trees, like grapes, around this time,” said Herrera.

The study throws in a side note: the diversification of birds and mammals after the extinction of dinosaurs could have also aided grapes by spreading their seeds.

The elusive South American grape fossil

Back in 2013, Herrera’s PhD advisor, Steven Manchester, had published a paper describing the oldest known grape seed fossil from India. 

Herrera, driven by his insatiable curiosity, went on a quest for the elusive South American grape fossil. In 2022, he and Carvalho stumbled upon a 60-million-year-old grape fossil in the Colombian Andes.

Their discovery of the fossil seed is as enchanting as the seed itself. “She looked at me and said, ‘Fabiany, a grape!’ And then I looked at it, I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ It was so exciting,” said Herrera.

It turns out this tiny fossil was not just the first South American grape fossil, but also one of the world’s oldest. This was confirmed with the help of CT scans. 

Lithouva susmanii 

The researchers named the fossil Lithouva susmanii, “Susman’s stone grape,” paying tribute to Arthur T. Susman – a supporter of South American paleobotany at the Field Museum.

“This new species is also important because it supports a South American origin of the group in which the common grape vine Vitis evolved,” said study co-author Gregory Stull of the National Museum of Natural History.

A journey back in time

The team’s relentless fieldwork in South and Central America led them to a discovery of nine new species of fossil grapes. 

These age-old seeds chronicle the story of the grape family’s migration across the Western Hemisphere amid a series of extinctions and dispersals.

“The fossil record tells us that grapes are a very resilient order. They’re a group that has suffered a lot of extinction in the Central and South American region, but they also managed to adapt and survive in other parts of the world,” said Herrera.

In an era of ongoing and impending mass extinctions, discoveries like this provide invaluable insights into the patterns of biodiversity crises. 

“But the other thing I like about these fossils is that these little tiny, humble seeds can tell us so much about the evolution of the forest,” concluded Herrera.

The study is published in the journal Nature Plants.


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