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Brian Axsmith

The reconstruction of ancient plants and the environments they shaped remains as much a "forbidding pursuit" as when Joseph Hooker labeled it as such in the mid-19th century. Fortunately, paleobotanists are not easily discouraged and their remarkable narrative of the plant history continued to expand in 2003.

Earliest Land Plants

Knowledge of early land plants is based primarily on vascular plants from the Silurian and Early Devonian. New evidence indicates that earlier fossils may represent bryophytes, a view supported by the find of sporangial fragments with spores showing liverwort-like ultrastructure from the Ordovician (Wellman and colleagues, Nature, v. 425, p. 282-285). Also, chemical analysis of the Lower Devonian Rhynie Chert plants by Charles Kevin Boyce and others (International Journal of Plant Sciences, v. 164, p. 691-702) indicates that the conducting cell walls in many early vascular plants were not lignified.


Sharon D. Klavins and others (International Journal of Plant Sciences, v. 164, p. 1007-1020) described an anatomically preserved cycad pollen cone from the Triassic. This study appeared concurrently with phylogenetic analyses of extant cycads (Hill et al. International Journal of Plant Sciences, v. 164, p. 933-948; Rai et al. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, v. 29, p. 350-359), raising the hope that integrated phylogenetic studies of cycads may soon be possible.

Insights into pteridosperms were prominent. Michael T. Dunn and colleagues (Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, v. 124, p. 307-324) described a medullosan from the Mississippian, which indicates that the earliest forms were vines. Evidence for the extensive exploitation of the vine habit by Paleozoic pteridosperms was reviewed by Michael Krings and others (The Botanical Review, v. 69, p. 204-221).

It's becoming clear that the Cordaitales underwent a more extensive diversification in the Paleozoic of Asia than indicated by Euro-American floras. Shi-Jun Wang and others (International Journal of Plant Sciences, v. 164, p. 89-112) supported this view with a reconstruction of the Chinese cordaite, Shanxioxylon.

Opponents of fossil use in phylogenetics note that many features of extinct plants will remain unknown due to preservational limitations. Paleobotanists, however, continue to document remarkable preservation, such as the demonstration of pollen tubes and flagellated sperm cells in a glossopterid ovule by Harufumi Nishida and colleagues (Nature, v. 422, p. 396-397). Pollen tubes and embryos were also described by Ruth Stockey and others (International Journal of Plant Sciences, v. 164, p. 251-262) from the cycadeoid Williamsonia.

Angiosperm origins

The origin of angiosperms continues to be controversial. Else Marie Friis and others (Trends in Plant Science, v. 8, p. 369-373) present a reconsideration of the early Chinese fossil angiosperm, Archaefructus. The putative flowers of this plant were originally interpreted as primitive in having conduplicate carpels and stamens occurring along an elongate floral axis. Friis and colleagues stress the radiometric dates supporting a Lower Cretaceous age for Archaefructus, which place it temporally close to other early angiosperms. They also question the conduplicate carpel morphology, suggesting that the supposed carpels and stamens are reduced flowers along an inflorescence axis. Archaefructus could then be a relatively derived aquatic angiosperm. Regardless of the outcome of this controversy, the great phylogenetic distance between modern angiosperms and gymnosperms means that answers to the question of angiosperm origins will depend on the interpretation of critical fossils like Archaefructus.

In recent decades, our knowledge of the Cretaceous angiosperm radiation has benefited from the discovery of floral mesofossils. Nearly all of this research has been Northern Hemisphere-based, however. In the Review of Paleobotany and Palynology (v. 127, p. 187-217), Helena Eklund described the first Cretaceous flowers from Antarctica.

Documentation of Tertiary angiosperm radiation was enhanced by studies from classic localities, such as the reconstruction of a new genus of Salicaceae from the Green River Formation by Lisa Boucher and colleagues (American Journal of Botany, v. 90, p. 1389-1399) and Smith and Stockey's analysis of aroid seeds from the Princeton Chert (International Journal of Plant Sciences, v. 164, p. 239-250).


Paleobotany continues to provide important data for reconstructing regional and global climates. For example, Ulh and others (Review of Paleobotany, v. 126, p. 49-64) and Elizabeth Kowalski and David Dilcher (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 100, p. 167-170) refined techniques for estimating paleoclimate from leaf assemblages; Nestor Ruben Cúneo and others (Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, and Palaeoecology, v. 197, p. 239-261) described a Triassic forest from Antarctica which once grew in an area where paleoclimate models that are based on physical data had indicated was too cold for extensive plant growth.

Paleobotany also provided evidence related to controversies over the age of the tropical rainforest, often characterized as geologically young (Neogene or Pleistocene). Peter Wilf and colleagues (Science, v. 300, p. 122-125) reported on rich fossil plant assemblages from Patagonia. The Eocene age of these deposits shows that high levels of plant diversity in warm regions of South America are very ancient.

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Axsmith is assistant professor in the Department of Biologic Sciences at the University of South Alabama. E-mail:

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