KU-Led Scientific Team Departs for Antarctic Research Expedition
Contact: Jen Humphrey, 785-864-2344
Although most people think of Antarctica as a barren, cold environment, 200 million years ago it was a lush forest – a forest that now permineralized can yield clues to the climate change of the past, and how plants today may react to current climate change as well.
An international research team headed by KU scientists will head to Antarctica this week as part of a project aimed at understanding floral changes during the Jurassic in the Transantarctic Mountains of Antarctica. The group, departing on Tuesday, Nov. 11, will be on the ground for about one month and plans to blog and post to social media about the experience. The public is invited to follow the team’s work here.
As part of this research, the group will examine the Early Jurassic fossil flora and the corresponding paleoenvironments from southern Victoria Land using a combination of geology, geochemistry and paleobotany.
“This research is important in understanding what climate and environment was like at the poles during one of Earth’s past greenhouse climates and how plants responded to both climate changes and instantaneous disruptions through the rise of volcanoes,” said Rudy Serbet, collection manager of paleobotany at KU Biodiversity Institute and one of the team leaders for the trip. “These sorts of times and environmental stresses are key to understanding how current climate change may affect high latitude plants.”
During their time in Antarctica, the researchers will be based at the McMurdo research station, but will also take several camping field trips “out to the ice,” including the Odell Glacier area and the Allan Hills. The group hopes to share images and experiences from the research station and eventually from the field, where communications technology is limited to satellite phones.
In addition to Serbet, the group is co-lead by geologist Erik L. Gulbranson, University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, and includes KU paleobotany graduate student Carla Harper; geologist Lauren A. Michel from the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Dallas; paleobotanist Ignacio Escapa of Argentina; paleobotanist Anne-Laure Decombeix of the French Center for Scientific Research of Montpellier, France; Charles Daghlian of Dartmouth College; and mountaineers Andrew Brown and David Buchanan. In addition, several other scientists from KU, other U.S. universities and Sweden are also involved in the research project but are not going to Antarctica. This work is part of a collaborative NSF proposal to PI Edith Taylor and CO-PI Tom Taylor at KU, and CO-PI Erik L. Gulbranson and John L. Isbell at UWM.
Together with Jeffrey Doyle, Douglas Soltis, Pamela Soltis and Jonathan Wendel, Dan Crawford recently edited an issue for Philosophical Transactions B, entitled ‘Contemporary and future studies in plant speciation, morphological/floral evolution and polyploidy: honouring the scientific contributions of Leslie D. Gottlieb to plant evolutionary biology’.
The publication recently interviewed Dan about the issue, available here.
In 2014, Paleobotany graduate student Carla J. Harper was a contributor in a symposium of the Mycological Society of America that focused on wood rotting fungi. Carla was the only graduate student that was asked to participate.
Paleobotany Senior Curator Edith Taylor has learned that a new Permian plant fossil has been named for her in honor of her long standing, high quality research with Antarctic fossil plants.
In 2014 a new fossil plant genus (pollen cone Ediea) was named for Dr. Edith L. Taylor in honor of her numerous contributions to the study of fossil plants from Antarctica.
At the International Paleobotany Conference in Tokyo, Japan (2013), a special symposium was dedicated to Dr. Thomas N. Taylor; the presentations were subsequently published in a special edition of the International Journal of Plant Sciences.
The Division of Paleobotany concluded a successful field season in Antarctica during October and November in 2012. From this expedition more than 5000 lbs of fossil plant materials were collected, and are currently the focus of research projects by members of the Division.
A remarkable find from plant fossils that date to approximately 240 million years ago predates the last known plant-fungi association that occurs in specialized root structures, termed nodules, by 100 million years. The find indicates that this specialized form of symbiosis has an ancient origin.
Only the roots of a few families of modern coniferous plants contain fungi that form this symbiotic association with the plant. In this association – called a mycorrhizal association -- the fungus obtains carbon from the plant and the plant obtains certain types of nutrients from the fungus.
Although the fossil record of these families can be traced back into the early Mesozoic era, the oldest fossil evidence of root nodules previously came from the Cretaceous era.
Andrew Schwendemann, a doctoral student mentored by Thomas N. Taylor, studied fossil plant root nodules containing fungi. The preservation is so extraordinary that it allowed Andrew to examine the individual cells of both the root nodules and fungi.
Close examination showed that mutual associations between the conifer root nodules and fungi date back to at least the Mesozoic era, the period during which most of the modern conifer families first appeared.
The research paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today.
Andrew spent this past December and January in the Transantarctic Mountains in Antarctica collecting plant fossils like those from which these nodules were described. He and other research team members anticipate that the 10,300 pounds of fossils that were collected during the expedition and transported back to KU to be deposited in at the KU Biodiversity Institute will yield additional significant discoveries.
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.