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Ancient Plant gets a High-Definition Makeover in New Study

Apr 12, 2014 11:28 AM EDT
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A University of California, Berkeley graduate student's desire for detail landed his study on the front cover of March's centennial issue of the American Journal of Botany.

Paleobotanists, through the nature of their work, are without living examples of the very plants they study, typically relying on basic line drawings based on fossils to get an idea of what ancient flora looked like.

But in his research of the ancient plant known as centipede clubmoss (Leclercqia scolopendra), Jeff Benca wanted his presentation to be up to the standards of our high-definition world.

"Typically, when you see pictures of early land plants, they're not that sexy: there is a green forking stick and that's about it. We don't have many thorough reconstructions," said Benca, a who is graduate student in the Department of Integrative Biology and Museum of Paleontology at UC-Berkeley. "I wanted to give an impression of what they may have really looked like. There are great color reconstructions of dinosaurs, so why not a plant?"

Centipede clubmoss is part of a plant group known as lycopods. When the plant was alive, it was one of just a few plant lineages with leaves. The plants likely covered the ground in sweeping mats, marked by prickly bodies made out of hooked leaf tips.

Benca, who is a self-described plant geek, said the reason for these hooked leaves is unclear, but it may have allowed the clubmoss to climb over larger plants.

Benca's study of centipede clubmoss, which was on Earth during the Devonian Periods, the so-called Age of Fishes, is part of a larger effort in the paleobotanist community to interpret early land plant fossils with greater confidence.

Many of the ancient plants in the fossil record are categorized just by stem fragments and have few distinguishing features.

"The way we analyzed Leclercqia material makes it possible to gain more information from these fragments, increasing our sample size of discernible fossils," Benca said.

Benca's advisor Cindy Looy, UC Berkeley assistant professor of integrative biology, said gaining a better understanding of how diverse and variable Devonian plants will lead to important advances in the understanding of the origins of key traits we see in many modem plants.

Jeff Benca and the cover of the March 2014 issue of the American Journal of Botany. Credit: Cathy Cockrell photo; Jeff Benca rendering.

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