The living species Ginkgo biloba is phylogenetically isolated, has a relictual distribution, and is morphologically very similar to Mesozoic and Cenozoic congenerics. To investigate what adaptations may have allowed this lineage to persist with little or no morphological change for over 100 Myr, we analyzed both sedimentological and floral data from 51 latest Cretaceous to middle Miocene Ginkgo-bearing fossil plant sites in North America and northern Europe. The resulting data indicate that throughout the late Cretaceous and Cenozoic Ginkgo was largely confined to disturbed streamside and levee environments, where it occurred with a consistent set of other plants. These inferred habitats are surprising because the life-history traits of Ginkgo (e.g., slow growth rate, late reproductive maturity, extended reproductive cycle, large and complex seeds, large and slowly developing embryos) are counter to those considered advantageous in modern disturbed habitats. Many flowering plant lineages first appeared or became common in disturbed riparian habitats, and are inferred to have had reproductive and growth traits (e.g., rapid reproduction, small easily dispersed seeds, rapid growth) suited to such habitats. Paleoecological inferences based on both morphology and sedimentary environments thus support the idea that Ginkgo was displaced in riparian habitats by angiosperms with better adaptations to frequent disturbance.
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