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Dinosaur extinction set scene for grapes, suggests study

Newly discovered fossil grape seeds dating back millions of years have offered fresh clues about the distant origins of the modern world’s wine love affair, according to researchers.

Fresh analysis has offered new evidence of plants from the grape family becoming more prominent after the extinction of the dinosaurs, and researchers suggested this was possibly aided by vines growing relatively undisturbed in forests.

It’s a hypothesis that followed the discovery of fossil grape seeds ranging from 19 million to 60 million years old in modern-day Colombia, Panama and Peru.

While a fossil grape seed previously found in India is around 66 million years old, the new discoveries include the oldest example of plants from the grape family (Vitaceae Juss) so far uncovered in the Western Hemisphere, according to the study in the Nature Plants journal.

‘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 Fabiany Herrera, lead study author. 

‘This discovery is important because it shows that after the extinction of the dinosaurs, grapes really started to spread across the world,’ said Herrera, who is an assistant curator of paleobotany at the Field Museum in Chicago’s Negaunee Integrative Research Center. 

According to the Field Museum, researchers believe there’s a reason why grapes appear in the fossil record around 66 million years ago.

That’s when an asteroid is believed to have impacted earth, causing a mass extinction event that ultimately led to the end of the dinosaurs.

‘We always think about the animals, the dinosaurs, because they were the biggest things to be affected, but the extinction event had a huge impact on plants, too,’ said Herrera, in a Field Museum article about the research. 

‘The forest reset itself, in a way that changed the composition of the plants.’   

Without dinosaurs crashing through forests, more plants were able to thrive among the trees, the study’s authors suggested.

‘We think that if there were large dinosaurs roaming through the forest, they were likely knocking down trees, effectively maintaining forests more open than they are today,’ said Mónica Carvalho, a study co-author and assistant curator at the University of Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology.

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

However, it wasn’t exactly plain sailing to that bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay on the dinner table.

Previous research has explored the long and winding journey of wild grapevines into domestication, and subsequent cultivation in Europe.

The authors of the Nature Plants study explained that the fossils discovered are only distant relatives of grapes native to the Western Hemisphere.

‘The fossil record tells us that grapes are a very resilient order,’ said Herrera in the Field Museum article about the latest research.

‘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.’


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