Ancient Plants – Minute Structure of Fossil Plants: Differences from Living Ones


We have seen in the last chapter that the main morphological divisions, roots, stems, leaves, and fructifications, were as distinct in the Coal Measure period as they are now. There is one structure, however, found in the Coal Measure fossils, which is hardly paralleled by anything similar in the living plants, and that is the fossil known as Stigmaria. Stigmaria is the name given, not to a distinct species of plant, but to the large rootlike organs which we know to have belonged to all the species of Lepidodendron and of Sigillaria. In the frontispiece these organs are well seen, and branch away at the foot of the trunk, spreading horizontally, to all appearance merely large roots. They are especially regularly developed, however, the main trunk giving rise always to four primary branches, these each dividing into two equal branches, and so on:in this they are unlike the usual roots of trees. They bore numerous rootlets, of which we know the structure very well, as they are the commonest of all fossils, but in their internal anatomy the main “roots” had not the structure which is characteristic of roots, but were like stems. In living plants there are many examples of stems which run underground, but they always have at least the rudiments of leaves in the form of scales, while the fossil structures have apparently no trace of even the smallest scales, but bear only rootlets, thus resembling true roots. The questions of morphology these structures raise are too complex to be discussed here, and Stigmaria is only introduced as an example, one of the very few available, of a palæozoic structure which seems to be of a nature not clearly determinable as either root, stem, leaf, or fructification. Among living plants the fine rootlike rhizophores of Selaginella bear some resemblance to Stigmaria in essentials, though so widely different from them in many ways, and they are probably the closest analogy to be found among the plants of to-day.

The individual cells, we have already seen, are strikingly similar in the case of fossil and living plants. There are, of course, specific varieties peculiar to the fossils, of which perhaps the most striking seem to be some forms of hair cells. For example, in a species of fern from the French rocks there were multicellular hairs which looked like little stems of Equisetum owing to regular bands of teeth at the junctions of the cells. These hairs were quite characteristic of the species:but hairs of all sorts have always abounded in variety, so that such distinction has but minor significance.


Fig. 48.:Stele of Lepidodendron W, surrounded by a small ring of secondary wood S

As was noted in the table the only cell types of prime importance which were not evolved by the Palæozoic plants were the wood vessels, phloem and accompanying cells which are characteristic of the flowering plants.

Among the fossils the vascular arrangements are most interesting, and, as well as all the types of stele development noted in the previous chapter as common to both living and fossil plants, there are further varieties found only among the fossils.

The simple protostele described is still found, particularly in the very young stages of living ferns, but it is a type of vascular arrangement which is not common in the mature plants of the present day. In the Coal Measure period, however, the protostele was characteristic of one of the two main groups of ferns. In different species of these ferns, the protostele assumed a large variety of shapes and forms as well as the simple cylindrical type. The central mass of wood became five-rayed in some, star-shaped, and even very deeply lobed, with slightly irregular arms, but in all these cases it remained fundamentally monostelic. Frequently secondary tissue developed round the protosteles of plants whose living relatives have no such tissue. A case of this kind is illustrated in fig. 48, which shows a simple circular stele surrounded by a zone of secondary woody tissue in a species of Lepidodendron.


Fig. 49.:Lepidodendron, showing Part of the Hollow Ring of Primary Wood W, with a relatively large amount of Secondary Tissue S, surrounding it

In many species of Lepidodendron the quantity of secondary wood formed round the primary stele was very great, so that (as is the case in higher plants) the primary wood became relatively insignificant compared with it. In most species of Lepidodendron the primary stele is a hollow ring of wood (cf. fig. 38) round which the secondary wood developed, as is seen in fig. 49. These two cases illustrate a peculiarity of fossil plants. Among living ones the solid and the simple ring stele are almost confined to the Pteridophytes, where secondary wood does not develop, but the palæozoic Pteridophytes, while having the simple primary types of steles, had quantities of secondary tissue, which was correlated with their large size and dominant position.


Fig. 50.:Diagram of Steles of the English Medullosa, showing three irregular, solid, steles A, with secondary thickenings S, all round each. a, Small accessory steles

Among polystelic types we find interesting examples in the fossil group of the Medulloseæ, which are much more complex than any known at present, both owing to their primary structure and also to the peculiar fact that all the steles developed secondary tissue towards the inner as well as the outer side. One of the simpler members of this family found in the English Coal Measures is illustrated in fig. 50. Here there are three principal protosteles (and several irregular minor ones) each of which has a considerable quantity of secondary tissue all round it, so that a portion of the secondary wood is growing in towards the actual center of the stem as a whole:a very anomalous state of affairs.

In the more complex Continental type of Medullosa there are very large numbers of steles. In the one figured from the Continent in fig. 51 but a few are represented. There is a large outer double-ring stele, with secondary wood on both sides of it, and within these a number of small steles, all scattered through the ground tissue, and each surrounded by secondary wood. In actual specimens the number of these central steles is much greater than that indicated in the diagram.

No plant exists to-day which has such an arrangement of its vascular cylinder. It almost appears as though at the early period, when the Medulloseæ flourished, steles were experimenting in various directions. Such types as are illustrated in figs. 50 and 51 are obviously wasteful (for secondary wood developing towards the center of a stem is bound to finally meet), and complex, but apparently inefficient, which may partly account for the fact that this type of structure has not survived to the present, though simpler and equally ancient types have done so.


Fig. 51.:Continental Medullosa, showing R, outer double-ring stele with secondary wood all round it; S, inner stellate steles, also surrounded in each case by secondary tissue

Further details of the anatomy of fossils will be mentioned when we come to consider the individual families; those now illustrated suffice to show that in the Coal Measures very different arrangements of steles were to be found, as well as those which were similar to those existing now. The significance of these differences will become apparent when their relation to the other characters of the plants is considered.

The fructifications, always the most important parts of the plant, offer a wide field, and the divergence between the commoner palæozoic and recent types seems at first to be very great. Indeed, when palæozoic reproductive bodies have to be described, it is often necessary to use the common descriptive terms in an altered and wider sense.

Among the plants of to-day there are many varieties of the simple single-celled reproductive masses which are called spores, and which are usually formed in large numbers inside a spore case or sporangium. Among the higher plants seeds are also known in endless variety, all of which, compared with spores, are very complex, for they are many-celled structures, consisting essentially of an embryo or young plant enclosed in various protective coats. The distinction between the two is sharp and well defined, and for the student of living plants there exists no difficulty in separating and describing seeds and spores.

But when we look back through the past eras to palæozoic plants the subject is not so easy, and the two main types of potentially reproductive masses are not sharply distinct. The seed, as we know it among recent plants, and as it is generally defined, had not fully evolved; while the spores were of great variety and had evolved in several directions, some of which seem to have been intermediate stages between simple spores and true seeds. These seedlike spores served to reproduce the plants of the period, but their type has since died out and left but two main methods among living plants, namely the essentially simple spores, the very simplicity of whose organization gives them a secure position, and the complex seeds with their infinite variety of methods for protecting and scattering the young embryos they contain.

Among the Coal Measure fossils we can pick up some of the early stages in the evolution of the seed from the spore, or at least we can examine intermediate stages between them which give some idea of the possible course of events. Hence, though the differences from our modern reproductive structures are so noticeable a feature of the palæozoic ones, it will be seen that they are really such differences as exist between the members at the two ends of a series, not such as exist between unrelated objects.

Very few types can be mentioned here, and to make their relations clear a short series of diagrams with explanations will be found more helpful than a detailed account of the structures.


Fig. 52.:Spores

Each spore a single cell which develops with three others in tetrads (groups of four). Very numerous tetrads enclosed in a spore case or sporangium which develops on a leaflike segment called the sporophyll. Each spore germinates independently of the others after being scattered, all being of the same size. Common in fossils and living Pteridophytes.


Fig. 53.:Spores

Each a single cell like the preceding, but here only one tetrad in a sporangium ripens, so that each contains only four spores. Compared with the preceding types these spores are very large. Otherwise details similar to above. Some fossils have such sporangia with eight spores, or some other small number; living Selaginellas have four. In the same cone sporangia with small spores are developed and give rise to the male organs.


Fig. 54.:“Spores” of Seedlike Structure

Out of a tetrad in each sporangium only one spore ripens, S in figure, the others, s, abort. The wall of the sporangium, w, is more massive than in the preceding cases, and from the sporophyll, flaps, sp f, grow up on each side and enclose and protect the sporangium. The one big spore appears to germinate inside these protective coats, and not to be scattered separately from them. Only found in fossils, one of the methods of reproduction in Lepidodendron. Other sporangia with small spores were developed which gave rise to the male organs.


Fig. 55.:“Seed”

In appearance this is like a seed, but differs from a true seed in having no embryo, and is like the preceding structure in having a very large spore, S, though there is no trace of the three aborting ones. The spore develops in a special mass of tissue known as the nucellus, n, which partly corresponds to the sporangium wall of the previous types. In it a cavity, p c, the pollen chamber, receives the pollen grains which enter at the apex of the “seed”. There is a complex coat, C, which stands round the nucellus but is not joined to it, leaving the space l between them. Only in fossils; Trigonocarpus is similarly organized. Small spores in fern-like sporangia, called pollen grains.


Fig. 56.:“Seed”

Very similarly organized to the above, but the coat is joined to the nucellus about two-thirds of its extent, and up to the level l. In the pollen chamber, p c, a cone of nucellar tissue projects, and the upper part of the coat is fluted, but these complexities are not of primary importance. The large spore S germinated and was fertilized within the “seed”, but apparently produced no embryo before it ripened. Small “spores” in fern-like sporangia form the pollen grains. Only in fossils, e.g. Lagenostoma.


Fig. 57.:Seed

Essentially similar to the preceding, except in the possession of an embryo e, which is, however, small in comparison with the endosperm which fills the spore S. The whole organization is simpler than in the fossil Lagenostoma, but the coat is fused to the nucellus further up (see l). Small “spores” form the pollen grains. Living and fossil type, Cycads and Ginkgo.


Fig. 58.:Seed

In the ripe seed the large embryo e practically fills up all the space within the two seed coats c1 and c2; endosperm, pollen chamber, &c., have been eliminated, and the young ovule is very simple and small as a result of the protection and active service of the carpels in which it is enclosed. Small “spores” form the pollen grains. Typical of living Dicotyledons.

These few illustrations represent only the main divisions of an army of structures with an almost unimaginable wealth of variety which must be left out of consideration.

For the structures illustrated in figs. 54, 55, and 56 we have no name, for their possible existence was not conceived of when our terminology was invented, and no one has yet christened them anew with distinct names. They are evidently too complex in organization and too similar to seeds in several ways to be called spores, yet they lack the essential element in a seed, namely, an embryo. The term “ovule” (usually given to the young seed which has not yet developed an embryo) does not fit them any better, for their tissues are ripened and hard, and they were of large size and apparently fully grown and mature.

For the present a name is not essential; the one thing that is important is to recognize their intermediate character and the light they throw on the possible evolution of modern seeds.

A further point of great interest is the manner in which these “seeds” were borne on the plant. To-day seeds are always developed (with the exception of Cycas) in cones or flowers, or at least special inflorescences. But the “seed” of Lagenostoma (fig. 56), as well as a number of others in the group it represents, were not borne on a special structure, but directly on the green foliage leaves. They were in this on a level with the simple sporangia of ferns which appear on the backs of the fronds, a fact which is of great significance both for our views on the evolution of seeds as such, and for the bearing it has on the relationships of the various groups of allied plants. This will be referred to subsequently (Chapter XI), and is mentioned now only as an example of the difference between some of the characters of early fossils and those of the present day.

It is true that botanists have long recognized the organ which bears seeds as a modified leaf. The carpels of all the higher plants are looked on as homologous with leaves, although they do not appear to be like them externally. Sometimes among living plants curious diseases cause the carpels to become foliar, and when this happens the diseased carpel reverts more or less to the supposed ancestral leaf-like condition. It is only among the ancient (but recently discovered) fossils, however, that seeds are known to be borne normally on foliage leaves.

From Mesozoic plants we shall learn new conceptions about flowers and reproductive inflorescences in general, but these must be deferred to the consideration of the family as a whole (Chapter XIII).

Enough has been illustrated to show that though the individual cells, the bricks, so to speak, of plant construction, were so similar in the past and present, yet the organs built up by them have been continually varying, as a child builds increasingly ambitious palaces with the same set of bricks.