We test the widely held notion that living gymnosperms are 'ancient' and 'living fossils' by comparing them with their sister group, the angiosperms. This perception derives partly from the lack of gross morphological differences between some Mesozoic gymnosperm fossils and their living relatives (e.g. Ginkgo, cycads and dawn redwood), suggesting that the rate of evolution of gymnosperms has been slow. We estimated the ages and diversification rates of gymnosperm lineages using Bayesian relaxed molecular clock dating calibrated with 21 fossils, based on the phylogenetic analysis of alignments of matK chloroplast DNA (cpDNA) and 26S nuclear ribosomal DNA (nrDNA) sequences, and compared these with published estimates for angiosperms. Gymnosperm crown groups of Cenozoic age are significantly younger than their angiosperm counterparts (median age: 32 Ma vs 50 Ma) and have long unbranched stems, indicating major extinctions in the Cenozoic, in contrast with angiosperms. Surviving gymnosperm genera have diversified more slowly than angiosperms during the Neogene as a result of their higher extinction rate. Compared with angiosperms, living gymnosperm groups are not ancient. The fossil record also indicates that gymnosperms suffered major extinctions when climate changed in the Oligocene and Miocene. Extant gymnosperm groups occupy diverse habitats and some probably survived after making adaptive shifts.
© 2011 The Authors. New Phytologist © 2011 New Phytologist Trust.