Ancient Plants – Fossil Plants as Records of Ancient Countries


The land which to-day appears so firm and unchanging has been under the sea many times, and in many different ways has been united to other land masses to form continents. At each period, doubtless, the solid earth appeared as stable as it is now, while the country was as well characterized, and had its typical scenery, plants, and animals. We know what an important feature of the character of any present country is its flora; and we have no reason to suspect that it was ever less so than it is to-day. Indeed, in the ages before men interfered with forest growth, and built their cities, with their destructive influences, the plants were relatively more important in the world landscape than they are to-day.

As we go back in the periods of geological history we find the plants had an ever-increasing area of distribution. To-day most individual species and many genera are limited to islands or parts of continents, but before the Glacial epoch many were distributed over both America and Europe. In the Mesozoic Ginkgo was spread all over the world, and in the present epoch it was confined to China and Japan till it was distributed again by cultivation; while in the Palæozoic period Lepidodendron seemed to stretch wellnigh from pole to pole.

The importance of the relation of plant structure to the climate and local physical conditions under which it was growing cannot be too much insisted upon. Modern biology and ecology are continually enlarging and rendering more precise our views of this interrelation, so that we can safely search the details of anatomical structure of the fossil plants for sidelights on the character of the countries they inhabited and their climates.

It has been remarked already that most of the fossils which we have well preserved, whether of plants or animals, were fossilized in rocks which collected under sea water; yet it was also noted that of marine plants we have almost no reliable fossils at all. How comes this seeming contradiction?

The lack of marine plant fossils probably depends on their easily decomposable nature, while the presence of the numerous land plants resulted from their drifting out to sea in streams and rivers, or dropping into the still salt marshes where they grew. Hence, in the rocks deposited in a sea, we have the plants preserved which grew on adjacent lands. In fresh water, also, the plants of the neighborhood were often fossilized; but actually on the land itself but little was preserved. The winds and rains and decay that are always at work on a land area tend to break down and wash away its surface, not to build it up.

There are many different details which are used in determining the evidence of a fossil plant. Where leaf impressions are preserved which exhibit a close similarity to living species (as often happens in the Tertiary period), it is directly assumed that they lived under conditions like those under which the present plants of that kind are living; while, if the anatomy is well preserved (as in the Palæozoic and several Mesozoic types), we can compare its details with that of similar plants growing under known conditions, and judge of the climate that had nurtured the fossil plant while it grew.

Previous to the present period there was what is so well known as the Glacial epoch. In the earthy deposits of this age in which fossils are found plants are not uncommon. They are of the same kind as those now growing in the cold regions of the Arctic circle, and on the heights of hills whose temperature is much lower than that of the surrounding lowlands. Glacial epochs occurred in other parts of the world at different times; for example, in South Africa, in the Permo-Carboniferous period, during which time the fossils indicate that the warmth-loving plants were driven much farther north than is now the case.

It is largely from the nature of the plant fossils that we know the climate of England at the time preceding the Glacial epoch. Impressions of leaves and stems, and even of fruits, are abundant from the various periods of the Tertiary. Many of them were Angiosperms, and were of the families and even genera which are now living, of which not a few belong to the warm regions of the earth, and are subtropical. It is generally assumed that the fossils related to, or identical with, these plants must therefore have found in Tertiary Northern Europe a much warmer climate than now exists. Not only in Northern Europe, but right up into the Arctic circle, such plants occur in Tertiary rocks, and even if we had not their living representatives with which to compare them, the large size and thin texture of their leaves, their smoothness, and a number of other characteristics would make it certain that the climate was very much milder than it is at present, though the value of some of the evidence has been overestimated.

From the Tertiary we are dependent chiefly on impressions of fossils; anatomical structure would doubtless yield more details, but even as it is we have quite enough evidence to throw much light on the physiography of the Tertiary period. The causes for such marked changes of climate must be left for the consideration of geologists and astronomers. Plants are passive, driven before great climatic changes, though they have a considerable influence on rainfall, as has been proved repeatedly in India in recent times.

From the more distant periods it is the plants of the Carboniferous, whose structure we know so well, that teach us most. Although there is still very much to be done before knowledge is as complete as we should wish, there are sufficient facts now discovered to correct several popular illusions concerning the Palæozoic period. The “deep, all-enveloping mists, through which the sun’s rays could scarcely penetrate”, which have taken the popular imagination, appear to have no foundation in fact. There is nothing in the actual structure of the plants to indicate that the light intensity of the climate in which they grew was any less than it is in a smoke-free atmosphere to-day.

Look at the “shade leaves” of any ordinary tree, such as a Lime or Maple, and compare them with those growing in the sunlight, even on the same tree. They are larger and softer and thinner. To absorb the same amount of energy as the more brilliantly lighted leaves, they must expose a larger surface to the light. Hence if the Coal Measure plants grew in very great shade, to supply their large growth with the necessary sun energy we should expect to find enormous spreading leaves. But what is the fact? No such large leaves are known. Calamites and Lepidodendron, the commonest and most successful plants of the period, had narrow simple leaves with but a small area of surface. They were, in fact, leaves of the type we now find growing in exposed places. The ferns had large divided leaves, but they were finely lobed and did not expose a large continuous area as a true “shade leaf” does; while the height of their stems indicates that they were growing in partial shade:at least, the shade cast by the small-leaved Calamites and Lepidodendrons which overtopped them.

Indeed there is no indication from geological evidence that so late as Palæozoic times there was any great abnormality of atmosphere, and from the internal evidence of the plants then growing there is everything to indicate a dry or physiologically dry sunny condition.

Of the plant fossils from the Coal Measures we have at least two types. One, those commonly found in nodules in the coal itself; and the other, nodules in the rocks above the coal which had drifted from high lands into the sea.

The former are the plants which actually formed the coal itself, and from their internal organization we see that these plants were growing with partly submerged roots in brackish swamps. Their roots are those of water plants, but their leaves are those of the “protected” type with narrow surface and various devices for preventing a loss of water by rapid transpiration. If the water they grew in had been fresh they would not have had such leaves, for there would have been no need for them to economize their water, but, as we see in bogs and brackish or salt water to-day (which is physiologically usable in only small quantities by the plant), plants even partly submerged protect their exposed leaves from transpiring largely.

There are details too numerous to mention in connection with these coal-forming plants which go to prove that there were large regions of swampy ground near the sea where they were growing in a bright atmosphere and uniform climate. Extensive areas of coal, and geological evidence of still more extensive deposits, show that in Europe in the Coal Measure period there were vast flats, so near the sea level that they were constantly being submerged and appearing again as debris drifted and collected over them. Such a land area must have differed greatly from the Europe now existing, in all its features. But the whole continent did not consist of these flats; there were hills and higher ground, largely to the north-east, on which a dry land flora grew, a flora where several of the Pteridosperms and Cordaites with its allies were the principal plants. These plants have leaves so organized as to suggest that they grew in a region where the climate was bright and dry.

A fossil flora which has aroused much interest, particularly among geologists, is that known as the Glossopteris flora. This Palæozoic flora has in general characters similar to those of the European Permo-Carboniferous, but it has special features of its own, in particular the genus Glossopteris and also the genera Phyllotheca and Schizoneura.

These genera, with a few others, are characteristic of the Permo-Carboniferous period in the regions in the Southern Hemisphere now known by the names of Australasia, South Africa, and South America, and in India. These regions, at that date, formed what is called by geologists “Gondwanaland”. In the rocks below those containing the plants there is evidence of glacial conditions, and it is not impossible that this great difference in climate accounts for the differences which exist between the flora of the Gondwanaland region and the Northern Hemisphere. Unfortunately we have not microscopically preserved specimens of the Glossopteris flora, which could be compared with those of our own Palæozoic.

To describe in detail the series of changes through which the seas and continents have passed belongs to the realm of pure geology. Here it is only necessary to point out how the evidence from the fossil plants may afford much information concerning these continents, and as our knowledge of fossil anatomy and of recent ecology increases, their evidence will become still more weighty. Even now, had we no other sources of information, we could tell from the plants alone where in the past continents were snow and ice, heat and drought, swamps and hilly land. However different in their systematic position or scale of evolutional development, plants have always had similar minute structure and similar physiological response to the conditions of climate and land surface, so that in their petrified cells are preserved the histories of countries and conditions long past.