Patagonia, Geological Time & Food History

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Two fossils of a newly discovered species of tomatillo that are 52 million years old. CreditPeter Wilf

They had us at Tomatillo. But mention fossils, geological timeframe, discovery and Patagonia all in the same headline and there we go:

Tomatillo Fossils, 52 Million Years Old, Are Discovered in Patagonia

By Nicholas St. Fleur

The nightshades have an ominous reputation, but this large plant family is more than just its most poisonous members, like belladonna. It contains more than 2,400 different species, including some of the most widely consumed fruits and vegetables in the world, such as potatoes, tomatoes and peppers.

By analyzing the fossil record through molecular data, scientists had estimated that the nightshade family was about 30 million years old, making it a relatively young plant family. But paleontologists in the Patagonia region in Argentina have discovered 52 million-year-old fossilized tomatillos, which are also nightshades. The discovery could push the age of the entire plant family, perhaps, back to when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

Tomatillos are like the tomato’s oddball cousin. They are small, green and covered in a papery husk, which makes them look like Chinese lanterns. The berry beneath the sheath is the key ingredient in a tangy, zesty salsa verde. Until now, researchers thought tomatillos first evolved about 10 million years ago. But the new findings suggest that the fruits are actually five times that old. Because tomatillos are thought to be an evolutionarily young member of the nightshade group, the recent finding suggests that the entire family may be much older than scientists had previously estimated.

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Two dried, modern tomatillos with features that resemble those of the fossilized tomatillos. Credit Peter Wilf

“The finding of the fossils extends the origins of these plants for at least 25 million more years,” said Rubén Cúneo, the director of Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio in Argentina and an author of a paper on the discovery published Thursday in the journal Science. “Now we have a much better idea of the evolution of this incredible group of plants that are so important from an economic viewpoint in the modern world.”

Read the whole article here.

 

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