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.


Are plants Ecosystem Engineers?

Will Matthaeus presents a case to the International Biogeography Society in Prague

In the frosty early days of January, Dr Will Matthaeus went to Prague to deliver a talk at the Ecosystem Engineering Symposium organized by Kate Lyons and Amelia Villaseñor at the 11th Biennial Conference of International Biogeography Society (IBS). In a session covering everything from Edicarian bioturbation to anthropogenic impacts and rewilding—500 million years of ecosystem engineering—Will presented plants as a foundational aspect of terrestrial ecosystems and classic examples of ecosystem and landscape reorganization with plant evolutionary changes (e.g., ‘The Devonian Plant Hypothesis’). The earliest plants were little more than ‘green slime.’  These small, prostrate organisms that were limited to wet environments may still have impacted global ecosystems by altering atmospheric oxygen concentrations.  Over the course of the evolutionary transformations that led from green slime to boreal forests and savannahs, plants have likely increased the diversity and maximum effect in their impact on ecosystems. Synthesis of paleo-plant traits, among other paleontological techniques, may provide insight into this function over periods of change, upheaval, and extinction in terrestrial environments that are informative for our future. However, understanding these changes requires expertise in a broad variety of disciplines; IBS meetings are a valuable opportunity for developing the frontiers of paleoecology through new collaborations.


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