Plant Evolution & Paleobotany

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

  • This section answer question such as "What is a fossil?", "What are researchers trying to decipher?", and "What problems do they encounter?"

The Earth's history is frequently told through a narrative of animal evolution; strange creatures that remind us of mythical beasts, such as dinosaurs, mammoths, and creatures that fascinate the mind of children and adults. Rarely does popular culture describe geologic history through the most fundamental organisms on the planet: plants, algae, bacteria, and fungi.

This website uses plants (and other "unseen" organisms) as the focus for studying the evolutionary changes on Earth. We all learned that photosynthesis is the basis for most life on Earth. This was also true in the past, and therefore autotrophs and decomposers serve as great lenses with which to study geologic/evolutionary change.

In addition, plants can be a better model for understanding evolution. We tend not to think that plants think or desire, thus avoiding misconceptions that assume organisms want to be taller, larger, faster, etc. Since plants, algae, bacteria, and fungi aren't perceived to have desires, people are more likely to understand and accept the mechanisms of evolution as described by scientists, and without anthropomorphism...

...also, let's face it, as you start to study and understand plants/fungi, you start to realize that they are just. so. amazing!

-Jamie Boyer, Ph.D.

Question of the week...

What is an Eophyte?

Eophytes are a recently described group of early land plants from the Welsh Borderland that help us understand the evolution of plants during the Silurian-Devonian (Edwards et al. 2021a; Edwards et al. 2021b). "Eo-phyte" means early plant, and they provide evidence of the transition from non-vascular plants (e.g. bryophytes), to plants that were evolving conducting cells.

They were very small plants that had upright, branched stems that were tipped with spore sacs containing a distinct type of spore; this was the sporophyte phase. This phase had food-conducting cells, similar to modern phloem, but they lacked water-conducting cells!

There are also flattened plant fossils found in association with these upright, branched forms. They look similar to the thalloid form of bryophytes. These thalloid fossils possess specialized cells for transferring nutrients, and may represent the gametophyte phase of the branched forms.

It is possible that these upright, branched forms were dedicated to dispersing spores, but did not have the ability to conduct photosynthesis. Instead, the thalloid form was photosynthetic, and provided nourishment to the branched forms.

Learn more on the Eophyte page

In order to understand evolution and the role of plants in the geologic record, this website is organized to provide paleobotanical information in several different formats

FAQ 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 story-based explanations of how things have changed, using frequently asked questions.

  • The evolution of land plants is divided into shorter time periods for easy comprehension. This is a short course taught at NYC-based botanical gardens.

  • 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

Paleobotany