What is Paleobotany?
Paleobotany is a field of paleontology that studies plants throughout geologic history, and is primarily concerned with the fossil record and evolutionary history of plants.
What are the objectives of paleobotany?
The major aim is to reconstruct entire fossil plants, from disjunct fossilized remains
To assign those fossil plants to particular taxonomic groups, and place them in an evolutionary hierarchy
To understand the (macro)evolution of extinct plants, including the origin of new plant structures,and ancestor-descendent relationships
What is a fossil?
Fossils are the lithified remains of life, found in sedimentary rock, usually in places where these rocks have been exposed
e.g. Eroded cliffs, Road cuts, Quarries, Mines, etc.
Fossil localities exist everywhere sedimentary rocks exist: from the Arctic, through the tropics, into Antarctica
Conditions of Fossilization
The organic material (e.g. organism, leaf, bone, etc.) is removed from an oxygen-rich environment, preventing aerobic decay by bacteria and fungi
The organic material is buried and introduced to the sedimentary rock record
The organic material becomes "fixed", which prevents decay by anaerobic bacteria.
The burial environment is usually rich in humic acids or clay minerals that can retard decay by blocking the chemical sites onto which decomposers fasten their degrading enzymes
Slowly over time, the living organic material is replaced by minerals created a fossil
If the fossilizing minerals are fine-grained, like clay, then the fossil tends to retain fine details at the microscopic level
If the fossilizing minerals are coarse-grained, like sand, then the fossil tends to be less detailed at the microscopic level
Direct Fossil Evidence
Organic material from past organisms, including leaves, stems, flowers, fruits, seeds, spores, etc. (e.g. fossil of a leaf)
The fossils are the materials in its original, or sometimes altered, form
Direct evidence can provide information about…
Morphology: the external form of an organism
Anatomy: internal cellular structure of an organism
Ultrastructure: subcellular structure of the organism's cells
Above: impression fossil of palm leaf
Below: trace fossil of Cambrian invertebrate
Indirect Fossil Evidence
Indirect fossils are evidence left by an organism, but does not include the preserved remains of an organism
For example, imprints made by an organism are indirect fossil evidence, called trace fossils or ichnofossils
Impressions of plants or animals (e.g. leaf imprint, footprints)
Chemical fossils, or chemofossils, are chemicals found in the rocks that are organic signatures of past life
Some indirect fossils can demonstrate aspects of the organism's metabolism
Amber: resins produced by trees
Coprolites: waste products (i.e. dung) of animals
Overall, indirect evidence can provide information about…
Existence (e.g. footprints, but no direct fossils)
Behavior (e.g. community living)
Ecology (e.g. predation / defense)
Physiology (e.g. running speed)
Above: coprolite of dinosaur
Below: fossil amber with some inclusions
Types of Fossilization
Two-dimensional fossils (flattened into a single plane), with organic material
Physical deformation such that the three-dimensional structure is compressed to more-or-less two-dimensions
Compressions retain organic matter, usually more or less coalified
Peat, lignite, and coal are essentially compressions of thick accumulations of plant debris relatively free of encasing mineral sediment
Above: compression of fern leaf
Two-dimensional imprints, devoid of organic matter
Impressions are essentially compressions without organic material.
If the sediment is very fine-grained, impressions may faithfully replicate remarkable details of original external form, regardless of subsequent consolidation of the sediment
Most commonly found in fine-grained sediment such as silt or clay
Above: impression of palm leaf
Casts and Molds
Three-dimensional fossils, may have a surface layer of organic material
A cast results when sediment is deposited into cavities left by the decay of plant parts
A mold is essentially a cavity left in the sediment by the decayed plant tissue. Molds are generally unfilled, or may be partially filled with sediment
Casts and molds commonly lack organic matter, but a resistant structure may be preserved as a compression on the outside of the cast or the inside of a mold
Casts and molds may be found together with the cast filling the mold
Three-dimensional, tissue infiltrated by minerals allowing internal preservation
Permineralization occurs when the plant tissues are infiltrated with mineral-rich fluid
Minerals precipitate in cell lumens and intercellular spaces, thus preserving internal structures of plant parts in three dimensions
Petrified wood is an example of a permineralized tree trunk
Above: Permineralized stump from Petrified Forest National Park
Non-structural fossils, preserves organic compounds
Breakdown products of chlorophyll and lignin have been found in well-preserved fossil leaves.
Lipids and their derivatives have also been recovered from sediments.
Some carbohydrate break-down products may also survive in sediment.
Genetic material was recovered from Tertiary leaves, and the age of material from which DNA and RNA is recovered seems to be greater with every issue of Nature.
Subdisciplines of Paleobotany
Development / Growth of ancient organisms
Form and function of plant structures
Interrelationships of organisms & environment
Origin and evolution of major plant groups
Evolutionary patterns of taxa
Macroevolution and speciation/extinction
What are Form Taxa?
Disarticulation of plant parts during fossilization creates problems for assigning taxonomy (e.g. which leaves are connected to which stems?)
The first task of paleobotany is to find evidence to connect plant parts to create a holistic picture of the plant
Connecting roots to stems to leaves
Connecting stems to reproductive structures (flowers, fruits, sporangia)
Connecting seeds and spores to fruits and sporangia, respectively
Since these parts may be found at different times, paleobotanists assign taxonomic names to each dis-articulated plant structure
These taxonomic names are called form taxa (e.g. form genus, form species, etc.)
Leaves, stems, roots, sporangia, spores, pollen, seeds, bark, etc. may all receive separate taxonomic names
The challenge for scientists and students of paleobotany is remembering all of these form taxa names that may be assigned to a single organism
Lepidodendron: upright stem with bark
Lepidophylloides: leaves (microphylls)
Stigmaria: root-like rhizophore (modified rhizome-like stem that anchors and absorbs water/minerals)
Lepidostrobophyllum: sporophyll (leaf protecting sporangia)
Lepidocarpon: female cone (contains megaspores)
Cystosporites: megaspores, which will produce female gametophytes
Lepidostrobus: male cones (contains microspores)
Lycospora: microspore, which will produce male gametophytes
Above: Lycopod scale tree reconstruction; note the different genus names for parts of the plant