Current events roundup: Super old-school plants edition

16 Jul

We’re due up for a current events post, and this week’s theme is crazy ancient plants. Specifically, let’s talk about the intense gardening jealousy I feel toward the researcher who germinated a 32,000-year-old plant, and how in the world scientists discovered a 298-million-year-old forest underneath a coal mine in China.

So, the recipient of my botanical stink-eye is researcher Svetlana Yashina, who extracted the placenta (photo below) from the frozen seeds of a long leafed campion plant, Silene stenophylla, and grew them into flowers. While the flowers aren’t particularly dazzling (or envy-inspiring), it’s incredible that this plant sprang from a seed that lay frozen in the tundra of northeastern Siberia for 31,800 years.

The mother plant produced this seed in the late Pleistocene — when wooly mammoths would have been trucking around present-day Russia. It was promptly buried and forgotten by a foraging squirrel. Some things don’t change, I suppose.

As reported by i09, the research team led by David Gilchinsky was specifically looking for seed stockpiles left by ancient squirrels, and they were richly rewarded. Their research site on the lower Kolyma River yielded upwards of 600,000 seeds, preserved at a continuous -7C in the permafrost.

I should point out that it’s extremely common to germinate seeds that have been frozen; this is how seed banks generally store seed for long periods, keeping them dormant and therefore viable. However, the oldest seed ever germinated into a plant before this was that of a roughly 2,000-year-old date palm. At the risk of sounding like a sports broadcaster, this completely shatters the previous record.

This also means researchers could end up filling a greenhouse with lost species like the long leafed campion. Your faithful writer will keep her ear to the frozen ground for updates to this end.

In related news, American and Chinese scientists discovered a whole forest near Wuda, Inner Mongolia, that had been buried intact beneath volcanic ash, much the same as other ruins around the world have been well-preserved due to sudden, catastrophic eruptions. In fact, it was so well preserved that the rendering to the right was created based on the actual mapped and recorded locations of every plant.

The team, led by paleobotanist Hermann Pfefferkorn of the University of Pennsylvania, Jun Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Yi Zhang of Shenyang Normal University and Zhuo Feng of Yunnan University, discovered a remarkably preserved area of about 10,763 square feet. After digging through a coal mine using heavy industrial equipment, they uncovered stumps, branches and entire plants exactly as they were 298 million years ago.

Six groups of trees — some up to 80 feet tall — have been identified in this Permian-period swamp forest, including Sigillaria, Cordaites and the now-extinct Noeggerathiales. This period predates angiosperms (flowering plants) and even the much older gymnosperms (conifers), meaning that this particular forest would have reproduced like ferns: with spores. In addition to some forms of dinosaurs, the first forms of mammals and turtles would have existed at the same time as the forest.

The Permian period marks the end of the Paleozoic era, both of which concluded in the largest mass extinction known to scientists. This event destroyed 70 percent of all land-based life, including many of the plants represented in the newly-unearthed forest.

Of course, I’d have a million questions for these researchers regarding species diversity, stand structure and similar information. But as a parting note, I’ve got one general question. More than anything else, I want to know if the team decided that they wanted to go with enormous industrial earth movers for this operation, or if someone in the know just happened to be present while the machinery was up to some other business in the coal mine.

4 Responses to “Current events roundup: Super old-school plants edition”

  1. midwestnaturalist July 17, 2012 at 5:54 am #

    An amazing article. I’m always amazed at how seeds can be preserved over such an incredible period of time. There are some interesting stories told in Richard Mabey’s WEEDS: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants. In it he relays accounts of seeds being found in the intestinal tracts of extinct mammals, in archeological sites and even Flanders Fields of France where agriculturally suppressed poppies sprung up following the extensive bombings during the WWI.

    • xylem_up July 17, 2012 at 8:26 am #

      I’m glad you liked it, and I’ll have to check out that book! I’m consistenly amazed at the viability of many species in the seedbank. So many things (like those poppies) respond to disturbance after laying dormant — for decades, even. One of many reasons I find plants so fascinating.

  2. Jamie Peacock August 30, 2012 at 11:51 pm #

    I enjoy reading your wonderfully enlightening articles about the current events in science. It is appreciated. It is amazing to me that we can do what we do. To take a seed of a plant that has been extinct for thousands of years and re-introduce it, reminds me of Jurrasic Park.

    • xylem_up August 31, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

      Seriously! It’s amazing. Hopefully the plants won’t eat anyone. And thanks for the compliment; glad I’m writing stuff that people find interesting!

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