Plant Evolution & Paleo-botany

An educational resource for students and teachers studying Earth's history, fossils, and evolution

The history of the Earth is frequently told through a narrative of animals. Strange creatures that remind us of mythical beasts; dinosaurs, mammoths, even strange ocean creatures fascinate the imaginations of children and adults. Rarely does popular culture describe geologic history through the most fundamental organisms on the planet: plants and algae.

Unlike almost all other websites, this one uses "plants" as the key organisms for studying the evolutionary changes on Earth. As we all learned, photosynthesis is basis to almost all life on Earth. This was especially true in the past, and therefore plants (i.e. photosynthetic organisms) serve as the perfect lens with which to study evolutionary change.

In addition, plants are a better model for understanding evolution. We tend not to think that plants think or desire, thus avoiding misconceptions that assume evolution occurs when organisms desire to be taller, larger, faster, etc. This idea of Lamarckian inheritance still pervades popular thinking; we frequently talk about how animals want to gather as much food as possible, or want to reproduce with as many mates as possible, etc. which helps the fittest survive. The classic idea that giraffes got taller over time, because they wanted to reach the leaves at the top of trees. Most people do not attribute behaviors to plants, or are less likely to think that plants "wanting" certain things in life, which is advantageous for evolutionary thinking. Since plants don't have desires, people are more likely to understand and accept the mechanisms of evolution as described by research scientists without anthropomorphism.

In order to elucidate evolution and the role of plants in geologic history, this website is organized to provide this information in several different approaches:

  • What is a fossil? What are researchers trying to decipher? What problems do they encounter?

  • The evolution of land plants is divided into four time periods for easy comprehension. This was a short course taught at NYC-based botanic(al) gardens.

Narrative of Earth's History

  • If you are new to the evolutionary history of plants, you may want to explore the section. This section is divided into 10 successive phases of Earth's history. The learning approach of this section is for people who prefer a factual story-based explanation of how things have changed.

  • This section provides detailed information about the Earth's history from a climate, geology, and geography perspective. It will also mention the origins of major groups through the lens of the Earth's timescale.

  • This section provides detailed information about the evolutionary relationship and taxonomic groups of plants both living and extinct. This section provides information about the structural and physiological changes that appear throughout the evolutionary history of plants.

  • This is a reference section for clarification about technical terms that appear throughout the website and paleobotanical literature