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Fossil dogwood alive in eastern Asia.

Fossil dogwood alive in eastern ASIA

The last of its kind had fallen in a lush tropical forest, some 4 million years ago--or so botanists reckoned. Apparently only fossils remained of this unique group of nut-bearing trees belonging to the dogwood family. But when two paleobotanists compared the fossil dogwood's woody fruits with those of the living Diplopanax stachyanthus -- a rare, East Asian species classified within another family--they saw nuts of a not-so-different color.

Diplopanax stachyanthus, they found, is a "living fossil," a member of an "extinct" genus of dogwoods that once flourished over much of Europe and Asia. Paleobotanists Richard Eyde and Xiang Qiuyun report their discovery in the May AMERICAN JOURNAL OF BOTANY. Working at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., Eyde and Qiuyun, now at Washington State University in Pullman, examined 15-million-year-old pecan-shaped fruits of a dogwood sub-family Mastixioideae, and compared them with those of a modern Diplopanax. The shape of their seed chambers, a key taxonomic feature of the dogwoods, proved nearly identical.

Diplopanax was discovered in China in 1928, but classified then as a member of Araliaceae, the ginseng family. Botanists first suspected a dogwood lurking in the ginseng ranks in 1978, but not until Eyde and Qiuyunheld it up to its ancient ancestors last year did Diplopanax emerge as the lost survivor of the woody-fruited dogwoods. Eyde died from cancer last week, only a few days before his discovery was published.

Steven R. Manchester of Indiana University in Bloomington, believes Eyde and Qiuyun's discovery will help clarify his and fellow paleobotanists' deductions about plant life in prehistoric forests back to 65 million years ago. Manchester has been examining scattered bits of fossilized plants -- like pieces of a petrified jigsaw puzzle -- to reconstruct extinct species and infer their environs. Now, in Diplopanax, he has a living model showing how some of the ancient pieces might fit.
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Author:Stolzenburg, William
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 9, 1990
Words:316
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