Paleobotany, also spelled as palaeobotany (from the Greek words paleon
= old and "botany", study of plants), is the branch of paleontology or
paleobiology dealing with the recovery and identification of plant
remains from geological contexts, and their use for the biological
reconstruction of past environments (paleogeography), and both the
evolutionary history of plants, with a bearing upon the evolution of
life in general. A synonym is paleophytology.
Paleobotany includes the
study of terrestrial plant fossils, as well as the study of
prehistoric marine photoautotrophs, such as photosynthetic algae,
seaweeds or kelp. A closely related field is palynology, which is the
study of fossilized and extant spores and pollen.
Paleobotany is important in the reconstruction of ancient ecological
systems and climate, known as paleoecology and paleoclimatology
respectively; and is fundamental to the study of green plant
development and evolution.
Paleobotany has also become important to
the field of archaeology, primarily for the use of phytoliths in
relative dating and in paleoethnobotany.
The emergence of paleobotany as a scientific discipline can be seen in
the early 19th century, especially in the works of the German
palaeontologist Ernst Friedrich von Schlotheim, the Czech (Bohemian)
nobleman and scholar Kaspar Maria von Sternberg, and the French
botanist Adolphe-Théodore Brongniart.
1 Overview of the paleobotanical record
2.1 Preservation of plant fossils
Fossil groups of plants
4 Notable paleobotanists
5 See also
6.1 Further reading
7 External links
Overview of the paleobotanical record
Macroscopic remains of true vascular plants are first found in the
fossil record during the
Silurian Period of the
Paleozoic era. Some
dispersed, fragmentary fossils of disputed affinity, primarily spores
and cuticles, have been found in rocks from the
Ordovician Period in
Oman, and are thought to derive from liverwort- or moss-grade fossil
plants (Wellman, Osterloff & Mohiuddin 2003).
An unpolished hand sample of the Lower
Devonian Rhynie Chert from
An important early land plant fossil locality is the Rhynie Chert,
found outside the village of Rhynie in Scotland. The
Rhynie chert is
Devonian sinter (hot spring) deposit composed primarily of
silica. It is exceptional due to its preservation of several different
clades of plants, from mosses and lycopods to more unusual,
problematic forms. Many fossil animals, including arthropods and
arachnids, are also found in the Rhynie Chert, and it offers a unique
window on the history of early terrestrial life.
Plant-derived macrofossils become abundant in the Late
include tree trunks, fronds, and roots. The earliest tree was thought
to be Archaeopteris, which bears simple, fern-like leaves spirally
arranged on branches atop a conifer-like trunk (Meyer-Berthaud,
Scheckler & Wendt 1999), though it is now known to be the recently
Widespread coal swamp deposits across North America and Europe during
Carboniferous Period contain a wealth of fossils containing
arborescent lycopods up to 30 meters tall, abundant seed plants, such
as conifers and seed ferns, and countless smaller, herbaceous plants.
Angiosperms (flowering plants) evolved during the Mesozoic, and
flowering plant pollen and leaves first appear during the Early
Cretaceous, approximately 130 million years ago.
A plant fossil is any preserved part of a plant that has long since
died. Such fossils may be prehistoric impressions that are many
millions of years old, or bits of charcoal that are only a few hundred
Prehistoric plants are various groups of plants that lived
before recorded history (before about 3500 BC).
Preservation of plant fossils
Ginkgoites huttonii, Middle Jurassic, Yorkshire, UK.
as compressions. Specimen in Munich Palaeontological Museum, Germany.
Plant fossils can be preserved in a variety of ways, each of which can
give different types of information about the original parent plant.
These modes of preservation are discussed in the general pages on
fossils but may be summarised in a palaeobotanical context as follows.
Adpressions (compressions - impressions). These are the most commonly
found type of plant fossil. They provide good morphological detail,
especially of dorsiventral (flattened) plant parts such as leaves. If
the cuticle is preserved, they can also yield fine anatomical detail
of the epidermis. Little other detail of cellular anatomy is normally
Devonian Rhynie Chert, Scotland, UK. Transverse section
through a stem preserved as a silica petrifaction, showing
preservation of cellular structure.
Petrifactions (permineralisations or anatomically preserved fossils).
These provide fine detail of the cell anatomy of the plant tissue.
Morphological detail can also be determined by serial sectioning, but
this is both time consuming and difficult.
Moulds and casts. These only tend to preserve the more robust plant
parts such as seeds or woody stems. They can provide information about
the three-dimensional form of the plant, and in the case of casts of
tree stumps can provide evidence of the density of the original
vegetation. However, they rarely preserve any fine morphological
detail or cell anatomy. A subset of such fossils are pith casts, where
the centre of a stem is either hollow or has delicate pith. After
death, sediment enters and forms a cast of the central cavity of the
stem. The best known examples of pith casts are in the Carboniferous
Sphenophyta (Calamites) and cordaites (Artisia).
Crossotheca hughesiana Kidston, Middle Pennsylvanian, Coseley, near
Dudley, UK. A lyginopteridalean pollen organ preserved as an
authigenic mineralization (mineralized in situ). Specimen in Sedgwick
Museum, Cambridge, UK.
Authigenic mineralisations. These can provide very fine,
three-dimensional morphological detail, and have proved especially
important in the study of reproductive structures that can be severely
distorted in adpressions. However, as they are formed in mineral
nodules, such fossils can rarely be of large size.
Fusain. Fire normally destroys plant tissue but sometimes
charcoalified remains can preserve fine morphological detail that is
lost in other modes of preservation; some of the best evidence of
early flowers has been preserved in fusain. Fusain fossils are
delicate and often small, but because of their buoyancy can often
drift for long distances and can thus provide evidence of vegetation
away from areas of sedimentation.
Plant fossils almost always represent disarticulated parts of plants;
even small herbaceous plants are rarely preserved whole. Those few
examples of plant fossils that appear to be the remains of whole
plants in fact are incomplete as the internal cellular tissue and fine
micromorphological detail is normally lost during fossilisation. Plant
remains can be preserved in a variety of ways, each revealing
different features of the original parent plant.
Because of these difficulties, palaeobotanists usually assign
different taxonomic names to different parts of the plant in different
modes of preservation. For instance, in the subarborescent Palaeozoic
sphenophytes, an impression of a leaf might be assigned to the genus
Annularia, a compression of a cone assigned to Palaeostachya, and the
stem assigned to either
Calamites or Arthroxylon depending on whether
it is preserved as a cast or a petrifaction. All of these fossils may
have originated from the same parent plant but they are each given
their own taxonomic name. This approach to naming plant fossils
originated with the work of Alexandre Brongniart and has stood the
test of time.
For many years this approach to naming plant fossils was accepted by
palaeobotanists but not formalised within the International Rules of
Botanical Nomenclature. Eventually, Thomas (1935) and Jongmans,
Halle & Gothan (1935) proposed a set of formal provisions, the
essence of which was introduced into the 1952 International Code of
Botanical Nomenclature. These early provisions allowed fossils
representing particular parts of plants in a particular state of
preservation to be referred to organ-genera. In addition, a small
subset of organ-genera, to be known as form-genera, were recognised
based on the artificial taxa introduced by Brongniart (1822) mainly
for foliage fossils. Over the years, the concepts and regulations
surrounding organ- and form-genera became modified within successive
codes of nomenclature, reflecting a failure of the palaeobotanical
community to agree on how this aspect of plant taxonomic nomenclature
should work (a history reviewed by Cleal & Thomas (2010)). The use
of organ- and fossil-genera was abandoned with the St Louis Code
(Greuter et al. 2000), replaced by "morphotaxa".
The situation in the Vienna Code of 2005 was that any plant taxon
whose type is a fossil, except Diatoms, can be described as a
morphotaxon, a particular part of a plant preserved in a particular
way. Although the name is always fixed to the type specimen, the
circumscription (i.e. range of specimens that may be included within
the taxon) is defined by the taxonomist who uses the name. Such a
change in circumscription could result in an expansion of the range of
plant parts and/or preservation states that can be incorporated within
the taxon. For instance, a fossil-genus originally based on
compressions of ovules could be used to include the multi-ovulate
cupules within which the ovules were originally borne. A complication
can arise if, in this case, there was an already named fossil-genus
for these cupules. If palaeobotanists were confident that the type of
the ovule fossil-genus and of the cupule fossil-genus could be
included in the same genus, then the two names would compete as to
being the correct one for the newly emended genus.
Morphotaxa were introduced to try to overcome the issue of competing
names that represented different plant parts and/or preservation
states. What would you do if the species-name of a pollen-organ was
pre-dated by the species name of the type of pollen produced by that
pollen organ. It was argued that palaeobotanists would be unhappy if
the pollen organs were named using the taxonomic name whose type
specimen is a pollen grain. As pointed out by Cleal & Thomas
(2010), however, the risk of the name of a pollen grain supplanting
the name of a pollen organ is most unlikely. Palaeobotanists would
have to be totally confident that the type specimen of the pollen
species, which would normally be a dispersed grain, definitely came
from the same plant that produced the pollen organ. We know from
modern plants that closely related but distinct species can produce
virtually indistinguishable pollen. It would seem that morphotaxa
offer no real advantage to palaeobotanists over normal fossil-taxa and
the concept was abandoned with the 2011 botanical congress and the
2012 International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants.
Fossil groups of plants
Stigmaria, a common fossil tree root. Upper
External mold of
Lepidodendron from the Upper
Carboniferous of Ohio.
Evolutionary history of plants
Evolutionary history of plants and List of extinct
Some plants have remained remarkedly unchanged throughout earth's
geological time scale. Early ferns had developed by the Mississippian,
conifers by the Pennsylvanian. Some plants of prehistory are the same
ones around today and are thus living fossils, such as
Sciadopitys verticillata. Other plants have changed radically, or
have gone extinct entirely.
Examples of prehistoric plants are:
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Edward W. Berry (1875–1945), paleoecology and phytogeography
William Gilbert Chaloner (1928-2016)
Isabel Cookson (1893-1973), early vascular plants, palynology
Dianne Edwards (1942-), colonisation of land by early terrestrial
Thomas Maxwell Harris (1903–1983),
Mesozoic plants of Jameson Land
(Greenland) and Yorkshire.
Robert Kidston (1852-1924), early land plants,
Carboniferous floras, and their use in stratigraphy
Birbal Sahni (1891–1949), Revision of Indian Gondwana Plants
Dunkinfield Henry Scott
Dunkinfield Henry Scott (1854–1934), analysis of the structures of
Constantin von Ettingshausen (1826–1897), Tertiary floras
Kaspar Maria von Sternberg
Kaspar Maria von Sternberg (1761–1838), the "father of paleobotany"
Franz Unger (1800–1870), pioneer in plant physiology, phytotomy and
Jack A. Wolfe
Jack A. Wolfe (1936–2005), Tertiary paleoclimate of western North
Gilbert Arthur Leisman (1924–1996), known for work on Carboniferous
lycophytes of central North America.
Evolutionary history of plants
Timeline of plant evolution
^ "Brongniart, Adolphe-Théodore". www.encyclopedia.com.
Encyclopedia.com: FREE online dictionary. Retrieved 22 February
^ Cleal, Christopher J.; Lazarus, Maureen; Townsend, Annette (2005).
"Illustrations and illustrators during the 'Golden Age' of
palaeobotany: 1800–1840". In Bowden, A. J.; Burek, C. V.; Wilding,
History of palaeobotany : selected essays. London: Geological
Society of London. p. 41. ISBN 9781862391741.
^ Speer, Brian R. (10 June 1995), The
Devonian Period, retrieved 12
^ Brongniart (1822)
^ Briquet, J. (1906), Règles internationales de la nomenclature
botanique adoptées par le Congrès International de Botanique de
Vienne 1905, Jena: Fischer, OCLC 153969885
^ Lanjouw et al. 1952
^ McNeill 2006
Brongniart, A. (1822), "Sur la classification et la distribution des
végétaux fossiles en général, et sur ceux des terrains de sediment
supérieur en particulier", Mém. Mus. Natl. Hist. Nat., 8: 203–240,
Cleal, C.J. & Thomas, B.A. (2010), "
Botanical nomenclature and
plant fossils", Taxon, 59: 261–268
Greuter, W.; McNeill, J.; Barrie, F R.; Burdet, H.M.; Demoulin, V.;
Filgueiras, T.S.; Nicolson, D.H.; Silva, P.C.; Skog, J.E.; Turland,
N.J. & Hawksworth, D.L. (2000), International Code of Botanical
Nomenclature (Saint Louis Code), Königstein.: Koeltz Scientific
Books, ISBN 978-3-904144-22-3
Jongmans, W.J.; Halle, T.G. & Gothan, W. (1935), Proposed
additions to the International Rules of Botanical Nomenclature adopted
by the fifth International Botanical Congress Cambridge1930, Heerlen,
Lanjouw, J.; Baehni, C.; Merrill, E.D.; Rickett, H.W.; Robyns, W.;
Sprague, T.A. & Stafleu, F.A. (1952), International Code of
Botanical Nomenclature: Adopted by the Seventh International Botanical
Congress; Stockholm, July 1950, Regnum Vegetabile 3, Utrecht:
International Bureau for
Plant Taxonomy of the International
Plant Taxonomy, OCLC 220069027
McNeill, J.; et al., eds. (2006), International code of botanical
nomenclature (Vienna Code) adopted by the seventeenth International
Botanical Congress, Vienna, Austria, July 2005 (electronic ed.),
Vienna: International Association for
Plant Taxonomy, archived from
the original on 6 October 2012, retrieved 2011-02-20
Meyer-Berthaud, Brigitte; Scheckler, S.E. & Wendt, J. (1999),
Archaeopteris is the Earliest Modern Tree", Nature, 398 (6729):
700–701, Bibcode:1999Natur.398..700M, doi:10.1038/19516
Thomas, H.H. (1935), "Proposed additions to the International Rules of
Botanical Nomenclature suggested by British palæobotanists" (PDF),
Journal of Botany, 73: 111
Wellman, Charles H.; Osterloff, Peter L. & Mohiuddin, Uzma (2003),
"Fragments of the Earliest Land Plants", Nature, 425 (6955):
282–285, Bibcode:2003Natur.425..282W, doi:10.1038/nature01884,
Wilson N. Stewart and Gar W. Rothwell. 2010.
Paleobotany and the
Evolution of Plants, Second edition. Cambridge University Press,
Cambridge, UK. ISBN 978-0-521-38294-6.
Thomas N. Taylor, Edith L. Taylor, and Michael Krings. 2008.
Paleobotany: The Biology and
Fossil Plants, 2nd edition.
Academic Press (an imprint of Elsevier): Burlington, MA; New York, NY;
San Diego, CA, USA, London, UK. 1252 pages.
Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
International Organisation of Paleobotany
Botanical Society of America - Paleobotanical Section
Paleobotany Research Group, University Münster, Germany.
The Biota of Early Terrestrial Ecosystems: The Rhynie Chert,
University of Aberdeen, UK.
Bibliography of Paleobotany
The Sternberg Project
PaleoNet - listservs and links related to paleontology
Jurassic Park plants Plants that lived when dinosaurs roamed the
Global registry of scientific names of fossil organisms.
History of botany
Hypanthium (Floral cup)
Plant growth and habit
Alternation of generations
History of plant systematics
International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants
International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN)
- for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP)
International Association for
Plant Taxonomy (IAPT)
Plant taxonomy systems
Cultivated plant taxonomy
by author abbreviation