The next time you step on a big, spiky pinecone, blame a dinosaur. A new study suggests that these seed carriers used to be soft and thin but that they had to toughen up when dinos with long necks started nibbling on them.
Conifers, such as today’s cypresses, Douglas firs, and giant redwoods, produce two types of cones: slender male cones that release pollen and bulky female cones that house the seeds. Ancient conifers also produced two cones, but palaeobotanist Andrew Leslie of Yale University noticed that they were both slim and unassuming, like today’s male cones.
Eager to find out what made the female cones bulk up, Leslie scoured the world’s herbariums—calipers in hand—in search of well-preserved fossil conifers. He compared the 70 or so specimens he found with more than 200 living species. Leslie’s early observation stood up: Female cones have gotten fatter. This widening was not a result of larger seeds but instead a broadening of the scales with which the cone arms itself against grazers, he reports online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
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