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Cycadaceae cycas family
Stangeriaceae stangeria family
Zamiaceae zamia family
Cycads are a group of seed plants characterized by a large crown of compound leaves and a stout trunk. They are evergreen, gymnospermous, dioecious plants having large pinnately compound leaves. They are frequently confused with and mistaken for palms or ferns, but are related to neither, belonging to the division Cycadophyta.
Cycads are found across much of the subtropical and tropical parts of the world. They are found in South and Central America (where the greatest diversity occurs), Australia, the Pacific Islands, Japan, China, India, Madagascar, and southern and tropical Africa, where at least 65 species occur. Some are renowned for survival in harsh semi-desert climates, and can grow in sand or even on rock. They are able to grow in full sun or shade, and some are salt tolerant. Though they are a minor component of the plant kingdom today, during the Jurassic period they were extremely common. Sago flour is generally made from true palms - not from the cycad popularly known as “Sago Palm” (Cycas revoluta).
They have very specialized pollinators and have been reported to fix nitrogen in association with a cyanobacterium living in the roots. This blue-green algae produces a neurotoxin called BMAA that is found in the seeds of cycads.
The cycad fossil record dates to the Early Permian, 280 mya. There is controversy over older cycad fossils that date to the late Carboniferous period, 300 -325 mya. One of the first colonizers of terrestrial habitats, this clade probably diversified extensively within its first few million years, although the extent to which it radiated is unknown as relatively few fossil specimens have been found. The regions to which cycads are restricted probably indicate their former distribution on the supercontinents Laurasia and Gondwana.
The family Stangeriaceae (named for Dr. William Stanger, 1812(?)-1854), consisting of only three extant species, is thought to be of Gondwanan origin as fossils have been found in Lower Cretaceous deposits in Argentina, dating to 70 – 135 mya. Zamiaceae is more diverse, with a fossil record extending from the Middle Triassic to the Eocene (54 – 200 mya) in North and South America, Europe, Australia, and Antarctica, implying that the family was present before the break-up of Pangea. Cycadaceae is thought to be an early offshoot from other cycads, with fossils from Eocene deposits (38 – 54 mya) in Japan and China, indicating that this family originated in Laurasia. Cycas is the only genus in the family and contains 99 species, the most of any cycad genus. Molecular data has recently shown that Cycas species in Australasia and the east coast of Africa are recent arrivals, suggesting that adaptive radiation may have occurred. The current distribution of cycads may be due to radiations from a few ancestral types sequestered on Laurasia and Gondwana, or could be explained by genetic drift following the separation of already evolved genera. Both explanations account for the strict endemism across present continental lines.
There are currently 305 described species, in 10-12 genera and 2-3 families of cycads (depending on taxonomic viewpoint). The classification below, proposed by Dennis Stevenson in 1990, is based upon a hierarchical structure based on cladistic analyses of morphological, anatomical, karyological, physiological and phytochemical data.