Early Plant Life

Evolution of Land Plants

No discussion of the evolution of plants on land can be undertaken without a brief review of the timeline of the geological eras. The early era, known as the Paleozoic, is divided into six periods. It starts with the Cambrian period, followed by the Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, and Permian. The major event to mark the Ordovician, more than 500 million years ago, was the colonization of land by the ancestors of modern land plants. Fossilized cells, cuticles, and spores of early land plants have been dated as far back as the Ordovician period in the early Paleozoic era. The oldest-known vascular plants have been identified in deposits from the Devonian. One of the richest sources of information is the Rhynie chert, a sedimentary rock deposit found in Rhynie, Scotland (Figure), where embedded fossils of some of the earliest vascular plants have been identified.

Photo shows a rock marbled brown and black with multiple indentations and irregular, pockmarked features containing fossilized corms and rhizoids. A circle appears around a few large features to indicate the fossilized corms.
Early vascular plant fossils. This Rhynie chert (a) contains fossilized material from vascular plants. Reconstruction of Cooksonia (b), the plant forms inside the circle. (credit b: modification of work by Peter Coxhead based on original image by “Smith609”/Wikimedia Commons; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Paleobotanists distinguish between extinct species, as fossils, and extant species, which are still living. The extinct vascular plants most probably lacked true leaves and roots and formed low vegetation mats similar in size to modern-day mosses, although some could reach one meter in height. The later genus Cooksonia, which flourished during the Silurian, has been extensively studied from well-preserved examples. Imprints of Cooksonia show slender branching stems ending in what appear to be sporangia. From the recovered specimens, it is not possible to establish for certain whether Cooksonia possessed vascular tissues. Fossils indicate that by the end of the Devonian period, ferns, horsetails, and seed plants populated the landscape, giving rising to trees and forests. This luxuriant vegetation helped enrich the atmosphere with oxygen, making it easier for air-breathing animals to colonize dry land. Plants also established early symbiotic relationships with fungi, creating mycorrhizae: a relationship in which the fungal network of filaments increases the efficiency of the plant root system, and the plants provide the fungi with byproducts of photosynthesis.

Career Connection

PaleobotanistHow organisms acquired traits that allow them to colonize new environments—and how the contemporary ecosystem is shaped—are fundamental questions of evolution. Paleobotany (the study of extinct plants) addresses these questions through the analysis of fossilized specimens retrieved from field studies, reconstituting the morphology of organisms that disappeared long ago. Paleobotanists trace the evolution of plants by following the modifications in plant morphology: shedding light on the connection between existing plants by identifying common ancestors that display the same traits. This field seeks to find transitional species that bridge gaps in the path to the development of modern organisms. Fossils are formed when organisms are trapped in sediments or environments where their shapes are preserved. Paleobotanists collect fossil specimens in the field and place them in the context of the geological sediments and other fossilized organisms surrounding them. The activity requires great care to preserve the integrity of the delicate fossils and the layers of rock in which they are found.

One of the most exciting recent developments in paleobotany is the use of analytical chemistry and molecular biology to study fossils. Preservation of molecular structures requires an environment free of oxygen, since oxidation and degradation of material through the activity of microorganisms depend on its presence. One example of the use of analytical chemistry and molecular biology is the identification of oleanane, a compound that deters pests. Up to this point, oleanane appeared to be unique to flowering plants; however, it has now been recovered from sediments dating from the Permian, much earlier than the current dates given for the appearance of the first flowering plants. Paleobotanists can also study fossil DNA, which can yield a large amount of information, by analyzing and comparing the DNA sequences of extinct plants with those of living and related organisms. Through this analysis, evolutionary relationships can be built for plant lineages.

Some paleobotanists are skeptical of the conclusions drawn from the analysis of molecular fossils. For example, the chemical materials of interest degrade rapidly when exposed to air during their initial isolation, as well as in further manipulations. There is always a high risk of contaminating the specimens with extraneous material, mostly from microorganisms. Nevertheless, as technology is refined, the analysis of DNA from fossilized plants will provide invaluable information on the evolution of plants and their adaptation to an ever-changing environment.