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Open Access Research article

Permian ginkgophyte fossils from the Dolomites resemble extant O-ha-tsuki aberrant leaf-like fructifications of Ginkgo biloba L

Thilo C Fischer1*, Barbara Meller2, Evelyn Kustatscher3 and Rainer Butzmann4*

Author Affiliations

1 Department Biology I, Biocenter Botany, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, Großhadernerstrasse 2-4, D-82152 Planegg-Martinsried, Germany

2 Institute of Palaeontology, Geocenter, University Vienna, Althanstrasse 14, A-1090 Wien, Austria

3 Museum of Nature South Tyrol, I-39100 Bozen/Bolzano, Bindergasse 1, Italy

4 Fuggerstrasse 8, D-81373 München, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:337  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-337

Published: 3 November 2010

Abstract

Background

Structural elucidation and analysis of fructifications of plants is fundamental for understanding their evolution. In case of Ginkgo biloba, attention was drawn by Fujii in 1896 to aberrant fructifications of Ginkgo biloba whose seeds are attached to leaves, called O-ha-tsuki in Japan. This well-known phenomenon was now interpreted by Fujii as being homologous to ancestral sporophylls. The common fructification of Ginkgo biloba consists of 1-2 (rarely more) ovules on a dichotomously divided stalk, the ovules on top of short stalklets, with collars supporting the ovules. There is essentially no disagreement that either the whole stalk with its stalklets, collars and ovules is homologous to a sporophyll, or, alternatively, just one stalklet, collar and ovule each correspond to a sporophyll. For the transition of an ancestral sporophyll resembling extant O-ha-tsuki aberrant leaves into the common fructification with stalklet/collar/ovule, evolutionary reduction of the leaf lamina of such ancestral sporophylls has to be assumed. Furthermore, such ancestral sporophylls would be expected in the fossil record of ginkgophytes.

Results

From the Upper Permian of the Bletterbach gorge (Dolomites, South Tyrol, Italy) ginkgophyte leaves of the genus Sphenobaiera were discovered. Among several specimens, one shows putatively attached seeds, while other specimens, depending on their state of preservation, show seeds in positions strongly suggesting such attachment. Morphology and results of a cuticular analysis are in agreement with an affiliation of the fossil to the ginkgophytes and the cuticle of the seed is comparable to that of Triassic and Jurassic ones and to those of extant Ginkgo biloba. The Sphenobaiera leaves with putatively attached seeds closely resemble seed-bearing O-ha-tsuki leaves of extant Ginkgo biloba. This leads to the hypothesis that, at least for some groups of ginkgophytes represented by extant Ginkgo biloba, such sporophylls represent the ancestral state of fructifications.

Conclusions

Some evidence is provided for the existence of ancestral laminar ginkgophyte sporophylls. Homology of the newly found fossil ginkgophyte fructifications with the aberrant O-ha-tsuki fructifications of Ginkgo biloba is proposed. This would support the interpretation of the apical part of the common Ginkgo biloba fructification (stalklet/collar/ovule) as a sporophyll with reduced leaf lamina.