Research For approximately 30 years, the Paleobotany laboratory has focused on studying various aspects of plant biology during the Late Permian (~255 million years ago), Middle Triassic (238 Ma) and Early Jurassic (185 Ma) of Antarctica.
One of the principle reasons that the Paleobotany Division conducts expeditions to Antarctica to collect fossil plants is the nature of their preservation. The best of these floras is anatomically preserved, which means that every cell within the tissue system of the plant is preserved in infinite detail. This comes about because waters highly concentrated with certain minerals infiltrate the plant parts and entomb the individual cells. As a result of this process, termed permineralizion, extraordinary details about the anatomy, morphology, and reproductive biology of the plants can be studied.
The fossil floras from Antarctica are even more valuable to study since during these time periods a number of unusual seed plant groups evolved, several of which have been implicated as possible ancestors of the flowering plants (angiosperms), the group that dominates the world today and that we depend upon for food and other uses. As a result of our studies information about the evolution of some of the late Paleozoic-early Mesozoic seed plant groups has moved rapidly forward. During the time that these plant groups were flourishing the continent of Antarctica was positioned at very high polar latitudes. This means that the plants that lived there existed under environmental conditions of around four months of total sunlight, four months of darkness, and four months of reduced light. Since there is no modern analogue to these conditions anywhere on Earth today the Antarctic fossils provide an important opportunity to examine multiple avenues of research dealing with adaptions resulting from these climate variables.
During the last twenty years our laboratory has pioneered studies on fungi and fungal-like organisms and their interactions with the plants that lived in ancient ecosystems, in collaboration with colleagues in Germany. For a long time it was assumed that fungi were too fragile to be adequately preserved and were not present in the fossil record in sufficient detail to investigate their diversity or involvement in ecosystem functions. Beginning with studies of permineralized fungi from the Lower Devonian (~407 Mya) Rhynie chert in Scotland we have expanded our investigations on fossil fungi and today carry out research on these organisms throughout the geologic column. Since fungi require other organisms as hosts we have been able to study these minute fossils in various types of interactions ranging from saprotrophs to types of parasites and mutualists. These interactions have then been compared with those in modern ecosystems to better understand how these relationships evolved and ultimately functioned.
Research within the Paleobotany Division continues to result in new discoveries and some of the most recent are noted below:
- The discovery of specific fungi in an Eocene angiosperm
- First report of mycorrhizae in a Paleozoic seed plant
- Discovery of an anatomically preserved unique seed-bearing reproductive structure from the Triassic of Antarctica
- New interpretation of fossil cell contents as biomimetic structures
Members of the Division of Paleobotany are working on multiple projects that include studies of fossil plants and fungi from Antarctica and other sites around the world.
One of these projects is designed to examine the fungal diversity within the Rhynie chert ecosystem and to describe new forms and types of interactions between the fungi and other organisms (e.g., cyanobacteria, algae, land plants).
Another project is examining various fungi in leaf mats and plant organs from the Permian and Triassic of Antarctica and will represent the first compressive study of fungi from this region during these time periods.
Another project focuses on a structurally preserved pollen cone from the Jurassic of Antarctica that not only expands the range of the plant group that produced the cone, but provides new details about the organization of this reproductive structure.
T.N. Taylor and E.L. Taylor, together with colleague Michael Krings from Munich, Germany have just finished a book manuscript - Fossil Fungi - that will be published late in 2014 by Academic Press.
During November and December of 2014 we will launch the second phase of our expedition to several collecting sites in southern Victoria Land and the Prince Albert Mountains in the Transantarctic Mountains. This expedition will include members of the Division of Paleobotany together with colleagues from France, Germany, Fiji, and several other academic institutions in the USA. The field team during 2014-2015 will focus primarily on collecting various types of plant fossils of Jurassic age but opportunities for collecting additional Permian and Triassic fossils will also be pursued.