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Paleobotany, Paleoecology, and Evolution

Paleobotany, Paleoecology, and Evolution

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The study of plants in the fossil record, in order to understand both the evolution of plant life and the ecology of ancient eras, is known as paleobotany. Paleobotany focuses on plant fossils, including algae, fungi, and related organisms, as well as mosses, ferns, and seed plants. Paleoecology is the investigation of individuals, populations, and communities of ancient organisms and their interactions with and dynamic responses to changing environments. This text considers what fossils are and how they can be preserved and studied. It seeks to help students determine the geologic age of a fossil, and explores the applications of palaeobotanical studies.

The fields of paleobotany, paleoecology, and evolution all aim to uncover the environment of the past, and how we arrived at the state we are today. Paleobotany uses the fossils of both terrestrial and aquatic plants to study prehistoric environments and the evolution of organisms. Paleobotany is the scientific study of ancient plants, using plant fossils found in sedimentary rocks. These fossils can be impressions or compressions of the plants left on the rock?s surface, or ?petrified? objects, such as wood, which preserve the original plant material in rocklike form. Still other specimens are found in calcified lumps called coal balls, so named because they are usually found in or near coal deposits. As most organisms decompose rapidly after death, their preservation in nature is a rare event. Most individuals are not represented in the fossil record, and even many species that must have existed have vanished without a trace. As a branch of botany, paleobotany is of importance primarily because the record of fossil plants helps scientists understand the long process of plant evolution. Especially since the 1940?s, fossil evidence has helped to explain the origin of major classes of organisms, such as algae and fungi. Paleoecology is the scientific study of past environments. Paleoecologists are interested in the ecosystem as a whole and derive their understanding of past environments from different lines of evidence, including fossil plants and animals, ancient soils and rocks. This field of study is important for anyone interested in past organisms because it provides the context for understanding the origin, extinction and adaptation of any particular organism. A related discipline, palynology, uses fossilized spores and pollen to address similar questions. Paleoecology is more diverse, looking at both plant and animal fossils to try and discover how species evolved and what the environmental conditions were like. There are a number of techniques that are often applied in paleobiology: morphological analysis has long been a commonly used tool in fossil and evolutionary studies; molecular methods such as the extraction of ancient DNA is becoming increasingly common as techniques are improving; chemical analysis such as the study of stable isotopes can provide information on the movement of a species as well as the environment as it changed through time. It describes and explains the origin and evolution of plants as revealed by the fossil record. Paleobotany, Paleoecology, and Evolution aims to examine the role of paleoecology in constructing evolutionary explanations for taxic-phylogenetic, morphological, and biogeographic patterns. We will advocate greater awareness of the vast amount of accessible ecological data and incorporation of ecological thinking into paleobotanical scenario-building. We begin this book with a discussion of the subdiscipline of paleoecology, and some of the challenges it is faced with in regards to the typical scientific method. We continue with a number of that use paleobotanical and paleoecological methods to study questions of evolution in plants and animals. At the end we discuss the evolution of social behavior, and how this fits with Darwin?s original theories. It highlights grand challenges in paleoecology focuses on paleoecology and genetics.

Linda Lait

Linda Lait

Linda obtained her MSc from the University of Lethbridge in 2011 and will be completing her PhD at Memorial University of Newfoundland in 2016. Her interests include the evolutionary history of species, particularly those of conservation concern, which she studies with molecular markers. Increasingly complex questions can be answered with the improved technologies that are emerging. She is currently finishing up her PhD in molecular genetics, and will be starting as a Postdoctoral Fellow studying phylogeography and molecular evolution in insects.