The Evolution of Gymnosperms

 Photo shows a fossilized leaf that is more than ten inches long, brown and feather-shaped.
Seed fern leaf. This fossilized leaf is from Glossopteris, a seed fern that thrived during the Permian age (290–240 million years ago). (credit: D.L. Schmidt, USGS)

OpenStax Biology 2e

The fossil plant Elkinsia polymorpha, a “seed fern” from the Devonian period—about 400 million years ago—is considered the earliest seed plant known to date. Seed ferns produced their seeds along their branches, in structures called cupules that enclosed and protected the ovule—the female gametophyte and associated tissues—which develops into a seed upon fertilization. Seed plants resembling modern tree ferns became more numerous and diverse in the coal swamps of the Carboniferous period.

Fossil records indicate the first gymnosperms (progymnosperms) most likely originated in the Paleozoic era, during the middle Devonian period: about 390 million years ago. The previous Mississippian and Pennsylvanian periods, were wet and dominated by giant fern trees. But the following Permian period was dry, which gave a reproductive edge to seed plants, which are better adapted to survive dry spells. The Ginkgoales, a group of gymnosperms with only one surviving species—the Ginkgo biloba—were the first gymnosperms to appear during the lower Jurassic. Gymnosperms expanded in the Mesozoic era (about 240 million years ago), supplanting ferns in the landscape, and reaching their greatest diversity during this time. The Jurassic period was as much the age of the cycads (palm-tree-like gymnosperms) as the age of the dinosaurs. Ginkgoales and the more familiar conifers also dotted the landscape. Although angiosperms (flowering plants) are the major form of plant life in most biomes, gymnosperms still dominate some ecosystems, such as the taiga (boreal forests) and the alpine forests at higher mountain elevations because of their adaptation to cold and dry growth conditions.

 Photo shows a boreal forest with a uniform low layer of plants and tall conifers scattered throughout the landscape. The snowcapped mountains of the Alaska Range are in the background.
Conifers. This boreal forest (taiga) has low-lying plants and conifer trees. (credit: L.B. Brubaker, NOAA)


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:



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