Background Reading

WHAT IS PALEOBOTANY?

Humans are by nature curious, and we are all interested in the Earth on which we live and how various aspects have changed through geologic time. We speculate about what the Earth looked like when there were no trees, when there were no flowering plants, and when the continental land masses were in different positions than they are today. Who has not been captivated by the various forms of life that are recorded in the rocks and the enormous reconstructions of dinosaurs exhibited in various museums? It is natural to wonder about such examples of prehistoric life—how these organisms lived, what their patterns of behavior were, and even why they became extinct. Although the paleontologist is interested in the geologic history of animals, the paleobotanist is concerned with the plants that inhabited the Earth throughout geologic time (Ward, 1885) (FIG. 1.1) . In a general sense, the paleobotanist is a plant historian who attempts to piece together the intricate and complicated picture of the history of the plant kingdom. Although molecular and genetic analyses of living plants have become increasingly important as tools in reconstructing the phylogeny and evolutionary history of plants, the discipline of paleobotany, in all its various forms, remains the only method by which this history can be documented and visualized. Two books that discuss paleobotany from a historical perspective and that capture the excitement of the discipline are The Fossil Hunters—In Search of Ancient Plants (Andrews, 1980) and History of Palaeobotany—Selected Essays (Bowden et al., 2005). These volumes discuss the origins of the field and the scientists who have made the science so exciting and fascinating.

Fossil plants and floras from one period of geologic time are different in size and shape, level of complexity, and abundance from those of other time periods. The most logical explanation for these differences is that the types of plants changed, or evolved, through geologic time. Unless one believes that there were an almost infinite number of "special creations," we must assume that new plant forms were derived from preexisting ones by the processes of evolution. By studying the record of fossil plants, it is possible to assess the time at which various major groups originated, the time each reached its maximum diversity, and, in the case of certain groups, when they became extinct.

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