Piecing Together an Ancient Plant Puzzle

Paleobotany sample

Sitting on the laboratory floor near Tom and Edie Taylor’s offices is a watermelon-sized chunk of fossilized peat. It’s black with white lines, golden splotches and gray speckles. The Taylors, who are both curators in paleobotany, can identify what these spots are. Thomas Taylor points out that the white veins are roots, and the speckled places, fungi.

The Taylors excavated this peat and thousands of other hunks of peat rock from Antarctica, where the fossilized forests are in sediments in the mountains that stick up above the ice level. The former forests, which lived about 250 million years ago, decomposed into peat, and eventually hardened into slabs of black rock.

Brought back to Kansas for study, these pieces of ancient life now make up the largest collection of Antarctic plant fossils in the world.

"Nobody else has this window into the past," noted Thomas Taylor.

Gathering specimines

The peat chunks are dense with information; hundreds of years of forest growth can be compressed into a few inches. The peat is scattered with pollen grains, seeds, roots, fungi, and plant leaves and stems that grew in the forest around the same time. The once-living matter in the peat is remarkably well preserved, which allows the Taylors and the students in their research group to see it in incredible microscopic detail – the texture of the surface of a pollen grain or individual cells in the outer layer of a leaf.

Thomas Taylor explains that knowing about plants helps scientists to know about the fauna living among them. He holds up a dried leaf that is riddled with holes. If his team finds something like that leaf, "we can make some assumptions not only about the plant, but about who was chewing on it," he said.

The Taylors and their graduate and postdoctoral students sift through these plant parts and try to match them like a jigsaw puzzle.

"We ask, does this pollen grain go with this anther? Are these the roots? Is this the fungus that lived in these roots?" Thomas Taylor said.

The collection not only includes the physical specimens; the collection is almost entirely databased, which allows scientists across the world to join in studying Antarctic forests.

There are more than 500 publications based on the KU fossil plant collections, and the list continues to grow. The more the group adds to its database, the more puzzle pieces they’ll have to fill out the "picture" of ancient Antarctic forests.