Palms as a model for rainforest evolution
The first complete genus-level dated phylogeny of palms reveals insights into the evolution of rainforests.
07 Nov 2011
Palms provide clues to the diversification of rainforests (Image: T. Couvreur)
Understanding how biodiversity is shaped through time is a fundamental question in biology. Even though tropical rainforests represent the most diverse terrestrial biomes, the timing, location and mechanisms of their diversification remain poorly understood. In a recent paper, scientists from the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (Montpellier), the New York Botanical Garden, and RBG Kew address these issues by constructing the first complete genus-level dated phylogeny of a largely rainforest-restricted plant family, the palms (Arecaceae or Palmae).
Results of the study
Their results indicate that diversification of extant lineages of palms started about 100 million years ago, during the mid-Cretaceous period. Using a range of diversification analyses, the authors conclude that palms diversified in a rainforest-like environment at northern latitudes and have conformed to a constant diversification model (the 'museum' model or Yule process), at least until the Neogene. These results imply the presence of a rainforest-like biome in the mid-Cretaceous period of Laurasia, considerably earlier than the first reliable fossil evidence for rainforests in the early Tertiary. Controversially, the results also suggest that ancient and steady evolutionary processes dating back to the mid-Cretaceous period can contribute, at least in part, to present day species richness in rainforests, perhaps due to the persistence of refugia during climatically unfavourable periods.
Item from Dr Bill Baker (Head of Palm Research, RBG Kew)
Kew Scientist 40 (autumn 2011), on-line first
Couvreur, T. L. P., Forest, F. & Baker, W. J. (2011). Origin and global diversification patterns of tropical rain forests: inferences from a complete genus-level phylogeny of palms. BMC Biology 9: 44 (open access).
Help Kew break new ground and inspire new generations
By making a donation to Kew today you can help our scientists to find out more about the fascinating world of plants, break new ground and inspire generations of young people to get to know plants better.
Our scientific programmes are focused on understanding plants and conserving the world's plant life and habitats at risk. Plants are essential to life on earth. In a world where the sustainability of the planet’s rich biodiversity is becoming less certain, Kew’s science work is ever more critical. Find out how your donation can make a difference.
Browse Kew news
- In the Gardens
- Science and conservation
- How you are helping
- Specialist science
- Kew blogs
- All Kew news
Keep up to date with events and news from Kew
- capacity building
- wet tropics
- focus families
- useful plants
- seed banking
- around the world
- South East Asia
- at risk
- new species
Kew on twitter
Unable to parse the data in the RSS file.