A Brief Introduction to
Although most of the "green things" that populate our oceans and continents don't have the
ability to move about and, hence, grab out attention, the world's biota couldn't exist without
these organisms. The Plant Kingdom is the base of Earth's food chain and, as such, is the
foundation for all life as we know it today, in the recent past, and in the deep past. That's not to
say that today's biota is exactly like that of the past. Indeed, there have been dramatic changes in
the base of the food chain since its first appearance. Documentation of these changes and
understanding the reasons for these changes is only part of what Paleobotany - the study of fossil
plants sensu latu (in the broad sense) - attempts to do.
Those scientists who actively pursue study of these seemingly "uninteresting" organisms have
devised several approaches to examine life's history that can be separated into two broad
categories -- TRADITIONAL and INTEGRATIVE APPROACHES. Traditional approaches
follow methodologies established during and immediately after the Renaissance, while Integrative
approaches are based upon methodologies that could only be established following advances in
technology of the 20th Century. Advances in analytical techniques in the next several decades will,
once again, change the way in which we approach this and other disciplines but, the traditional
approaches will remain basic to all avenues of research. If you don't know how it was preserved,
what it is, how it is constructed, and what is its life cycle, you can't take the organism(s) and use
it with any amount of credibility for more synthetic approaches in our desire to develop local,
regional, and global models of how Earth works.
Traditional approaches to studying plant fossils include the following:
- SYSTEMATICS - The attempt at a natural classification of plants. If we consider
organisms that are capable of photosynthesis as being inclusive within the "Plant
Kingdom," then there is a wide variety of organisms that can be accommodated in this
category. These include organisms that belong to the MONERA (Cyanobacteria &
Bacteria); PROTISTA (Slime molds, Brown Algae, Red Algae, Diatoms & Golden Brown
Algae, Yellow-Green Algae, Dinoflagellates, Euglenoids, Grass-green Algae); and
PLANTAE (Bryophyta, Tracheophyta). Additionally, decomposers in the FUNGI are
included within paleobotanical studies.
- MORPHOLOGY - The way in which plants are constructed. Roots, stems,
photosynthetic appendages, and reproductive structures are all considered under this
- ANATOMY & HISTOLOGY - The recognition and delimitation of plant cells, tissues and
- EVOLUTION & DIVERSIFICATION - The changes in plant types and increase in
biodiversity and complexity of different plant groups through time as a function of genetic
processes (interbreeding, mutation, etc.).
- COAL GEOLOGY - The role in which plants contribute to the stored potential energy of
the Carbon Cycle.
Integrative approaches, developed within the past half-century, include:
- WHOLE PLANT PALEOBIOLOGY - The incorporation of all aspects of a plant's
vegetative and reproductive parts to understand its role in the plant kingdom.
- PALEOECOLOGY & ECOSYSTEM DYNAMICS - Plants interact with their
environment and are the basis of the ecosystem. These interactions are discernible in the
fossil record and allow paleobotanists to compare them to present ecosystems to assess
the evolution of the community through time.
- PALEOBIOGEOGRAPHY - This involves the distribution of plant communities globally
through time and their changes in distribution as it relates to both geological and
- PALEOCLIMATOLOGY - Terrestrial plants are the most sensitive organisms to changes
in climate on the continental scale. The distribution of major vegetational and forest types
provides the best assessment of global climate change that has affected emergent land
surfaces, and provides an independent test of models developed from oceanic data sets or
- TAPHONOMY - The processes responsible for the development, burial, and preservation
of plant parts not only as fossils but also as Organic Carbon. This involves an
understanding of sedimentology and sedimentary processes.
- ENERGY RESOURCES & ORGANIC GEOCHEMISTRY - The incorporation of plant-derived Organic Carbon has been demonstrated to be in integral part of all hydrocarbon-forming environments (petroleum & natural gas).
- EVOLUTIONARY MECHANISMS - Plants provide independent tests of hypotheses
concerning the mechanisms responsible for and acting upon organic evolution. Multi-variate mathematical techniques have been developed to assess inter-relationships of
character states (morphological and anatomical features) that allow for hypothesis testing.
- ASYSTEMATIC FUNCTIONAL MORPHOLOGY - Plant organization appears to be
independent of systematic affinity, and specific adaptations evolve in response to specific
conditions. Assessment of such morphologies provides evidence for organic "problem
There is a whole lot more to the study of fossil plants than what is imagined by the general public.
Paleobotany can be a dynamic and contributing science to a working knowledge of biological
systems of the past, present, and possibly the future.
A Website providing course notes on Paleobotany is maintained on
Link to the HomePage of thePALEOBOTANICAL
SECTION of the BOTANICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA
last updated 12 July 2000