Dinosaurs’ Extinction Helped Grapes (and Wine) Flourish Across the World

By: Sam Watanuki | Published: Jul 02, 2024

According to a new study, apparently, the mass extinction of dinosaurs around 66 million years ago paved the way for grapes to spread across the globe.

Without dinosaurs to trample and consume the vegetation, forests became denser, providing an ideal environment for grapevines to thrive.

Earliest Fossil Grapes in the Americas

Researchers recently discovered nine new species of fossil grapes in Colombia, Peru, and Panama.

Many bunches of grapes on vines in a vineyard outside in the daytime.

Source: David Köhler/Unsplash

One species, Lithouva susmanii, found in the Colombian Andes, is the oldest known grape fossil in the Western Hemisphere, dating back 60 million years.

Impact of Dinosaurs on Forests

Dinosaurs played a significant role in shaping their ecosystems. Large dinosaurs maintained open forests by knocking down trees.

The image is a vintage grayscale illustration depicting a prehistoric scene with several dinosaurs. In the foreground, a large dinosaur with a long neck and a horse-like head stands prominently, while the background features a group of similar dinosaurs in motion. To the left, a smaller dinosaur is seen in the distance

Source: Wikimedia Commons

After their extinction, forests became more crowded, favoring the growth of climbing plants like grapevines.

Post-Extinction Forest Dynamics

With the dinosaurs gone, tropical forests in South America became denser.

Illustration of the earth when dinosaurs roamed

Source: Shutterstock

This new ecological context allowed grape plants to spread more easily, taking advantage of the crowded forest canopy to climb and flourish.

Role of Birds and Mammals

The post-extinction period saw an explosion in bird and mammal diversity. These animals likely helped disperse grape seeds, further aiding the spread of grapevines.

A photograph that depicts the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs

Source: Wikimedia

Birds, in particular, played a crucial role in carrying seeds to new locations.

Vitaceae Family's Ancient History

The Vitaceae family, which includes grapevines, dates back to around 66 million years ago.

Table with bread, wine, and grapes

Source: iStock

The oldest known grape seed fossils, originally found in India, coincide with the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs.


Significance of Fossil Seeds

Plant fossils are usually found as seeds because soft tissues decay rapidly.

Close-up photograph of a dinosaur skull and other fossilized bones

Source: iStock

The preserved seeds found in this study provide valuable insights into how grape plants spread and adapted in the millions of years following the dinosaurs’ extinction.


Diverse Grapevine Species

The nine newly identified grape species from South America highlight the diversity of the Vitaceae family.

researcher in lab coat using microscope

Source: DC Studio, Freepik

These fossils reveal how grapevines adapted to different environments and contributed to the plant’s global distribution.


Grapevines' Climbing Ability

Around the time of the dinosaur extinction, fossil records show an increase in climbing plants like grapevines.

A photograph of sun rays

Source: Wikimedia

These plants used trees for support, allowing them to reach sunlight and spread their seeds more effectively.


Economic Importance of Grapes

Today, the Vitis genus, which includes the common grapevine, is economically significant.

An example of a wine bottle from the 18th century. The bottle is black and has a thin neck and a wide base.

Source: Unknown Author/Wikimedia Commons

Grapes are consumed directly and used to produce wine, making them one of the most important fruit crops in the world.


Quotes from Researchers

“This discovery is important because it shows that after the extinction of the dinosaurs, grapes really started to spread across the world,” said Fabiany Herrera, an assistant curator of paleobotany at the Field Museum in Chicago.

In the Saurian Age, when the World's inhabitants were gigantic reptiles, by Arthur Mee, 1907, from Harmsworth History of the World Volume 1

Source: The Print Collector/Getty Images

“We always think about the animals, the dinosaurs, because they were the biggest things to be affected, but the extinction event had a huge impact on plants too,” Herrera said.


Implications for Wine Production

The spread of grapevines following the dinosaurs’ extinction ultimately led to the diverse grape species we cultivate today.

A California vineyard seen outside of Fresno, California in the daytime.

Source: Susie Burleson/Unsplash

This ancient event set the stage for the development of vineyards and the global wine industry we know and enjoy today.