Fossil-hunting expedition across France

Fossil-hunting expedition across France

Over the past week (June 21st-28th), the two postgraduate members of the TERRAFORM team, Catarina Barbosa and Antonietta Knetge, travelled to Poitiers, France for fieldwork. Alongside Dr Bernard Gomez and his postgraduate student, Axel Montigny from the University Claude Bernard Lyon 1, they visited multiple Mesozoic exposures to collect leaf macrofossils and plant debris. The first quarry visited was in Persac, an Albian-Cenomanian (~ 100.5 ma) paleokarst locality with angiosperm leaves and various fauna such as bivalves, bony fish, crocodyliforms, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and mammals. The group then travelled to the Île d’Oléron to excavate an early Tithonian locality (~149.2 ma), abundant in fossilised conifer wood. The subsequent localities visited offered excellent examples of different types of plant fossil preservation ranging from petrified, and silicified, to plant cuticles preserved in clay. Many of these sites were situated in the La Rochelle/Rochefort area, including the unique Île Madame, only accessible at low tide. The images below show the group on their last night of fieldwork as well as Eucalyptus-like angiosperm leaves from Puy-Puy (Albian-Cenomanian, ~ 100.5 ma) and the fossilised wood from Île d’Oléron. 

by Antonietta Knetge


Understanding how fossilisation of plants works

A pilot project in experimental taphonomy

Researchers from the TERRAFORM team visited University College Cork in March to carry out a pilot project in experimental taphonomy with collaborator Maria McNamara. Postdoc Will Matthaeus and PhD student Catarina Barbosa are interested in testing hypotheses regarding the effect of certain aspects of the process that plant parts undergo in the transition between life and preservation in the fossil record (i.e., taphonomy). Maria is a leading expert in the interpretation of the fossil record using experimental alteration of biological materials. The group aims to develop robust interpretations of signals from the plant fossil record for use in ecosystem simulations.


New publication!

Functional traits of fossil plants

Led by Prof. McElwain, the ERC-funded TERRAFORM project team recently published a comprehensive review “Functional Traits of Fossil Plants” in the New Phytologist. The review took a unique approach, evaluating which extant plant traits offer the greatest promise for application to fossils through contemporary trait-based ecology. The focus was placed on plant functional traits and measurable properties of fossils that provide insights into the functioning of the plants in past environments.

Taking into consideration the limitations of a trait-based approach in palaeobotany, the team together with collaborators assessed over 30 extant traits in palaeobotany and ranked 26 paleo-functional traits based on taphonomic and methodological criteria that can potentially impact Earth system processes. The Tansley Review offers a new perspective on the study of extinct plants and brings insights into their functioning in the past.

The open-access publication is available online under this link.

Figures from the publication:

Figure 1. The methodological framework used to critically evaluate 30 contemporary plant traits (from Pérez-Harguindeguy et al., 2013) for their potential application to the plant fossil record as paleo-functional traits.

Figure 2. Examples of fossil plant functional traits.

Figure 3. Comparison of paleo-functional trait scores according to different weighting criteria.


How to bring extinct plants ‘Back to Life' - publication by Will Matthaeus and Jenny McElwain

How to bring extinct plants ‘Back to Life.’

An obvious question to many might be “why study plant fossils?” Of course, some people just think they are amazing on their own. But there are ways that plant fossils can help us understand how Earth’s different systems work together. One framework for this approach is described by the recent review A Systems Approach to Understanding How Plants Transformed Earth’s Environment in Deep Time by TERRAFORM postdoc Will Matthaeus and PI Jenny McElwain among others. First, the plant fossil record tells us that at least part of Earth has been covered by plants since they evolved nearly half-a-billion years ago, even though the climate has been very different at times. The fossil record also shows that plants have changed so much since their start that at times they may have been nearly alien to our modern eyes. Finally, using ecosystem process models to incorporate measurements from plant fossils with climate simulations, we can estimate how extinct plants may have performed in the climates they experienced hundreds of millions of years in the past. Reaching so far back requires the expertise of several different kinds of scientists all working closely together to carefully develop solutions to a diverse array of challenges, and will allow us to understand the whole story of how the Earth we know came to be.

Copyright © 2022 Matthaeus, Montañez, McElwain, Wilson and White.
Citation: Matthaeus WJ, Montañez IP, McElwain JC, Wilson JP and White JD (2022) Stems matter: Xylem physiological limits are an accessible and critical improvement to models of plant gas exchange in deep time. Front. Ecol. Evol. 10:955066. doi: 10.3389/fevo.2022.955066

Open Access Publication