US (CO): Chili pepper fossil discovery may upend evolutionary timeline

Fossilized plants can provide much information about plant diversification and the planet’s geography and evolution. Researchers have discovered an ancient chili pepper from Colorado that may upend our understanding of when and where the plant originated.

The nightshade family of plants, Solanaceae, is large, with more than 2,000 species that include tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers (capsicum), and chili peppers. It’s always been thought that the chili pepper tribe, Capsiceae, evolved in South America about 10 to 15 million years ago, but a new discovery may question that belief.

Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder examined two well-preserved fossils collected by the University and one housed at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. All three were taken from the Green River Formation that spreads across northwestern Colorado and southwestern Wyoming.

The Green River Formation is one of the most important fossil sites for understanding the Eocene period, the time when the continents drifted towards their current positions some 34 to 56 million years ago. Examining the fossils, one stood out to researchers because it had visible spikes on the end of a stem.

“At first, I thought, ‘No way! This can’t be true,” said Rocío Deanna, lead author of the study. “But it was so characteristic of the chili pepper.”


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