Ancient Plants – Past Histories of Plant Families: The Lower Plants


In the plant world of to-day there are many families including immense numbers of species whose organization is simpler than that of the groups hitherto considered. Taken all together they form, in fact, a very large proportion of the total number of living species, though the bulk of them are of small size, and many are microscopic.

These “lower plants” include all the mosses, and the flat green liverworts, the lichens, the toadstools, and all the innumerable molds and parasites causing plant diseases, the green weeds growing in water, and all the seaweeds, large and small, in the sea, the minute green cells growing in crevices of the bark of trees, and all the similar ones living by millions in water. Truly a host of forms with an endless variety of structures.

Yet when we turn to the fossil representatives of this formidable multitude, we find but few. Indeed, of the fossil members of all these groups taken together we know less that is of importance and real interest than we do of any single family of those hitherto considered. The reasons for this dearth of fossils of the lower types are not quite apparent, but one which may have some bearing on it is the difficulty of mineralization. It is self-evident that the more delicate and soft-walled any structure is the less chance has it of being preserved without decay long enough to be fossilized. As will have been understood from Chapter II, even when the process of fossilization took place, geologically speaking, rapidly, it can never have been actually accomplished quickly as compared with the counter processes of decay. Hence all the lower plants, with their soft tissue and lack of wood and strengthening cells, seem on the face of it to stand but little chance of petrifaction.

There is much in this argument, but it is not a sufficient explanation of the rarity of lower plant fossils. All through the preceding chapters mention has been made of very delicate cells, such as pith, spores, and even germinating spores, with their most delicate outgrowing cells. If then such small and delicate elements from the higher plants are preserved, why should not many of the lower plants (some of which are large and sturdy) be found in the rocks?

As regards the first group, the mosses, it is probable that they did not exist in the Palæozoic period, whence our most delicately preserved fossils are derived. There seems much to support the view that they have evolved comparatively recently although they are less highly organized than the ferns. Quite recently experiments have been made with their near allies the liverworts, and those which were placed for one year under conditions similar to those under which plant petrifaction took place, were found to be perfectly preserved at the end of the period; though they would naturally decay rapidly under usual conditions. This shows that Bryophyte cells are not peculiarly incapable of preservation as fossils, and adds weight to the negative evidence of the rocks, strengthening the presumption of their late origin.

That some of the lower plants, among the very lowest and simplest, can be well preserved is shown in the case of the fossil fungi which often occur in microscopic sections of palæozoic leaves, where they infest the higher plants as similar parasitic species do to-day.

We must now bring forward the more important of the facts known about the fossils of the various groups of lower plants.

Bryophytes.:Mosses. Of this family there are no specimens of any age which are so preserved as to show their microscopical structure. Of impressions there are a few from various beds which show, with more or less uncertainty in most cases, stems and leaves of what appear to be mosses similar to those now extant, but they nearly all lack the fructifications which would determine them with certainty. These impressions go by the name of Muscites, which is a dignified cloak for ignorance in most cases. The few which are quite satisfactory as impressions belong to comparatively recent rocks.

Liverworts are similarly scanty, and there is nothing among them which could throw any light on the living forms or their evolution. The more common are of the same types as the recent ones, and are called Marchantites, specimens of which have been found in beds of various ages, chiefly, however, in the more recent periods of the earth’s history.

It is of interest to note that among all the delicate tissue which is so well preserved in the “coal balls” and other palæozoic petrifactions, there are no specimens which give evidence of the existence of mosses at that time. It is not unlikely that they may have evolved more recently than the other groups of the “lower” plants.

Characeæ.:Members of this somewhat isolated family (Stoneworts) are better known, as they frequently occur as fossil casts. This is probably due to their character, for even while alive they tend to cover their delicate stems and leaves, and even fruits, with a limy incrustation. This assists fossilization to some degree, and fossil Charas are not uncommon. Usually they are from the recently deposited rocks, and the earliest true Charas date only to the middle of the Mesozoic.

An interesting occurrence is the petrifaction of masses of these plants together, which indicate the existence of an ancient pool in which they must have grown in abundance at one time. A case has been described where masses of Chara are petrified where they seem to have been growing, and in their accumulations had gradually filled up the pond till they had accumulated to a height of 8 feet.

The plants, however, have little importance from our present point of view.

Fungi.:Of the higher fungi, namely, “toadstools”, we have no true fossils. Some indications of them have been found in amber, but such specimens are so unsatisfactory that they can hardly afford much interest.


Fig. 119.:The Hyphæ of Fungi Parasitic on a Woody Tree

c, Cells of host; h, hyphæ of fungus, with dividing cell walls.

The lower fungi, however, and in particular the microscopic and parasitic forms, occur very frequently, and are found in the Coal Measure fossils. Penetrating the tissues of the higher plants, their hosts, the parasitic cells are often excellently preserved, and we may see their delicate hyphæ wandering from cell to cell as in fig. 119, while sometimes there are attached swollen cells which seem to be sporangia. From the Palæozoic we get leaves with nests of spores of the fungus which had attacked and spotted them as so many do to leaves to-day. What is specially noticeable about these plants is their similarity to the living forms infesting the higher plants of the present day. Already in the Palæozoic the sharp distinction existed between the highly organized independent higher plants and their simple parasites. The higher plants have changed profoundly since that time, stimulated by ever-changing surroundings, but the parasites living within them are now much as they were then, just sufficiently highly organized to rob and reproduce.

A form of fungus inhabitant which seems to be useful to the higher plant appears also to have existed in Palæozoic times, viz. Mycorhiza. In the roots of many living trees, particularly such as the Beech and its allies, the cells of the outer layers are penetrated by many fungal forms which live in association with the tree and do it some service at the same time as gaining something for themselves. This curious, and as yet incompletely understood physiological relation between the higher plants and the fungi, existed so far back as the Palæozoic period, from which roots have been described whose cells were packed with minute organisms apparently identical with Mycorhiza.


Fig. 120.:Fossil Leaf l with Nests of Infesting Fungal Spores f on its lower side

Algæ.:Green Algæ (pond weeds). Many impressions have been described as algæ from time to time, numbers of which have since been shown to be a variety of other things, sometimes not plants at all. Other impressions may really be those of algæ, but hitherto they have added practically nothing to our knowledge of the group.

Several genera of algæ coat themselves with calcareous matter while they are alive, much in the same way as do the Charas, and of these, as is natural, there are quite a number of fossil remains from Tertiary and Mesozoic rocks. This is still more the case in the group of the Red Algæ (seaweeds), of which the calcareous-coated genera, such as Corallina and others, have many fossil representatives. These plants appear so like corals in many cases that they were long held to be of animal nature. The genus Lithothamnion now grows attached to rocks, and is thickly encrusted with calcareous matter. A good many species of this genus have been described among fossils, particularly from the Tertiary and Cretaceous rocks. As the plant grew in association with animal corals, it is not always very easy to separate it from them.

Brown Algæ (seaweeds) have often been described as fossils. This is very natural, as so many fossils have been found in marine deposits, and when among them there is anything showing a dark, wavy impression, it is usually described as a seaweed. And possibly it may be one, but such an impression does not lead to much advance in knowledge. From the early Palæozoic rocks of both Europe and America a large fossil plant is known from the partially petrified structure of its stem. There seem to be several species, or at least different varieties of this, known under the generic name Nematophycus. Specimens of this genus are found to have several anatomical characters common to the big living seaweeds of the Laminaria type, and it is very possible that the fossils represent an early member of that group. In none of these petrified specimens, however, is there any indication of the microscopic structure of reproductive organs, so that the exact nature of the fossils is not determinable. It is probable that though perhaps allied to the Laminarias they belong to an entirely extinct group.

An interesting and even amusing chapter might be written on all the fossils which look like algæ and even have been described as such. The minute river systems that form in the moist mud of a foreshore, if preserved in the rocks (as they often are, with the ripples and raindrops of the past), look extraordinarily like seaweeds-as do also countless impressions and trails of animals. In this portion of the study of fossils it is better to have a healthy scepticism than an illuminating imagination.

Diatoms, with their hard siliceous shells, are naturally well preserved as fossils, for even if the protoplasm decays the mineral coats remain practically unchanged.

Diatoms to-day exist in great numbers, both in the cold water of the polar regions and in the heat of hot springs. Often, in the latter, one can see them actually being turned into fossils. In the Yellowstone Park they are accumulating in vast numbers over large areas, and in some places have collected to a thickness of 6 feet. At the bottoms of freshwater lakes they may form an almost pure mud of fine texture, while on the floor of deep oceans there is an ooze of diatoms which have been separated from the calcareous shells by their greater powers of resistance to solution by salt water.


Fig. 121.:Diatom showing the Double Siliceous Coat

There are enormous numbers of species now living, and of fossils from the Tertiary and Upper Mesozoic rocks; but, strangely enough, though so numerous and so widely distributed, both now and in these past periods, they have not been found in the earlier rocks.

In one way the diatoms differ from ordinary fossils. In the latter the soft tissues of the plant have been replaced by stone, while in the former the living cell was enclosed in a siliceous case which does not decompose, thus resembling more the fossils of animal shells.

Bacteria are so very minute that it is impossible to recognize them in ordinary cases. In the matrix of the best-preserved fossils are always minute crystals and granules that may simulate bacterial shapes perfectly. Bacillus and Micrococcus of various species have been described by French writers, but they do not carry conviction.

As was stated at the beginning of the chapter, from all the fossils of all the lower-plant families we cannot learn much of prime importance for the present purpose. Yet, as the history of plants would be incomplete without mention of the little that is known, the foregoing pages have been added.