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Plants have utterly transformed the planet, but testing hypotheses of causality requires a reliable time-scale for plant evolution. While clock methods have been extensively developed, less attention has been paid to the correct interpretation and appropriate implementation of fossil data. We constructed 17 calibrations, consisting of minimum constraints and soft maximum constraints, for divergences between model representatives of the major land plant lineages. Using a data set of seven plastid genes, we performed a cross-validation analysis to determine the consistency of the calibrations. Six molecular clock analyses were then conducted, one with the original calibrations, and others exploring the impact on divergence estimates of changing maxima at basal nodes, and prior probability densities within calibrations. Cross-validation highlighted Tracheophyta and Euphyllophyta calibrations as inconsistent, either because their soft maxima were overly conservative or because of undetected rate variation. Molecular clock analyses yielded estimates ranging from 568–815 million yr before present (Ma) for crown embryophytes and from 175–240 Ma for crown angiosperms. We reject both a post-Jurassic origin of angiosperms and a post-Cambrian origin of land plants. Our analyses also suggest that the establishment of the major embryophyte lineages occurred at a much slower tempo than suggested in most previous studies. These conclusions are entirely compatible with current palaeobotanical data, although not necessarily with their interpretation by palaeobotanists.
- MSc Palaeobiology