Author: Laura Dewis

Prehistoric plants

Updated Tuesday, 24th August 2004
Palaeobiology - a look at the importance of prehistoric plants

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It is just as important to reconstruct ancient plants, as it is to reconstruct animals. Understanding plants is important because in the past, as now, they were a vital part of the ecosystem forming the base of the food chain. Plants also provide clues about what the climate was like when they were growing. Fossil plants are rarely preserved intact so they are a puzzle for palaeobotanists (palaeontologists who study plants). As a consequence, many different parts of the same plant have been discovered and have been given individual species names.

One tree with many names

For example, during the Carboniferous period, 286 to 360 million years ago, Britain was covered in forests of the tree-like plant Lepidodendron. Different parts of the plant, including the roots, leaves, cones, spores and even different parts of the trunk, were found as fossils and named as separate species. By restoring the plant as a whole, we now realise that these individual parts were actually part of a single organism. Determining how a prehistoric organism looked is not the last step in palaeobiology. We can look for clues about the behaviour and ecology of an extinct organism and its contemporaries.

Next: Evidence for diet

 

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