World news – « Pompeii of Prehistoric Plants » reveals the evolutionary secret: study


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March 8, 2021

from the University of Birmingham

Spectacular fossil plants preserved in a volcanic ash fall in China shed light on an evolutionary race 300 million years ago that was ultimately derived from the seed-bearing plants that dominate so much of the earth today.

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New research on fossils found in the « Pompeii of Prehistoric Plants » in Wuda, Inner Mongolia, shows that the plants, called Noeggerathiales, were highly evolved members of the lineage from which seed plants came.

Noeggerathiales were important peat-forming plants that lived 325 to 251 million years ago. Understanding of their relationships with other groups of plants has so far been limited by poorly preserved examples.

The fossils found in China have enabled experts to discover that Noeggerathiales are more closely related to seed plants than to other groups of ferns.

They do not apply more than an evolutionary dead end, but are now considered advanced tree ferns that developed complex cone-shaped structures from modified leaves. Despite their sophistication, Noeggerathiales fell victim to the profound environmental and climatic changes that destroyed swamp ecosystems around the world 251 million years ago.

The international research team led by paleontologists at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology and the University of Birmingham has its Results published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Co-authored by Dr. Jason Hilton, reader in paleobiology at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Forest Research, commented, « Noeggerathiales were recognized as early as the 1930s, but scientists have treated them as a ‘taxonomic soccer ball’ that has been kicked around endlessly without anyone identifying their place in history Life.

« The spectacular fossil plants in China are known as the plant equivalent of Pompeii. Thanks to this phase of life preserved in volcanic ash, we were able to reconstruct a new type of Noeggerathiales, which ultimately determines the affinity and evolutionary meaning of the group.

« The fate of the Noeggerathiales is a clear reminder of what can happen even if very advanced forms of life Faced with rapid environmental changes. « 

The researchers examined complete noeggerathiales, which were stored in a 66 cm thick volcanic ash bed 298 million years ago and suffocated any plants growing in a nearby swamp.

The ash prevented that the fossils were rotten or eaten, and preserved many complete individuals in microscopic detail. Lead author Jun Wang, Professor of Paleobotany at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology, commented, « Many specimens were found during excavations in 2006 -2007 identified as some leaves on the surface of the Ashes were visible. It looked like they could be connected to « each other and a stalk underneath – we exposed the crown on site, but then fully extracted the samples to bring back to the lab.

 » It did took many years to fully examine these and the additional specimens we have recently found. The full trees are the most impressive fossil plants I have ever seen, and because of our painstaking work, they are also some of the most important to science. « 

The researchers also concluded that the lineage from which seed plants evolved , next to the earliest seed plant radiation during the Devonian, Carboniferous and Permian periods diversified and did not quickly become extinct as previously assumed.

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