A Herbaceous Conifer From the Triassic

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It is hard to make broad generalizations about groups of related organisms. There are always exceptions to any rule. Still, there are some “facts” we can throw around that seem to apply pretty well to specific branches on the tree of life. For instance, all of the gymnosperm lineages we share our planet with today are woody, relatively slow to reach sexual maturity, and are generally long-lived. This has not always been the case. Fossil discoveries from France suggest that in the past, gymnosperms were experimenting with a more herbaceous lifestyle.

The fossils in question were discovered in eastern France back in the 1800’s. The strata from which they were excavated dates back to the Middle Triassic, some 247 million years ago. Immortalized in these rocks were numerous spindly plants with strap-like leaves and a few branches, each ending in what look like tiny cones. Early interpretations suggested that these may represent an extinct lycopod, however, further investigation suggested something very surprising - a conifer with an herbaceous growth habit.

Indeed, thanks to even more scrutiny, it is now largely agreed upon that what was preserved in these rocks were essentially herbaceous conifers. The fossils were given the name Aethophyllum stipulare. They are wonderfully complete, depicting roots, shoots, leaves, and reproductive organs. Moreover, the way in which they were fossilized preserved lots of fine-scale anatomical details. Taken together, there are plenty of clues available that allow paleobotanists to say a lot about how this odd conifer made a living.

For starters, they were not very big plants. Not a single specimen has been found that exceeds 2 meters (6.5 ft) in height. The main stem of these conifers only seem to branch a couple of times. Cones were formed at the tips of the upper branches and not a single specimen has been found that depicts subsequent growth following cone formation. This suggests that Aethophyllum exhibited determinate growth, meaning that individuals grew to a certain size, reproduced, and did not continue to grow after that. Female cones were situated at the tips of the upper most branches and male cones were situated at the tips of lower shoots. The smallest reproductive individuals that have been unearthed are only 30 cm (11 in) in height, which suggests that Aethophyllum  was capable of reproducing within a few months of germination.

Artists reconstruction of  Aethophyllum stipulare

Artists reconstruction of Aethophyllum stipulare

Amazingly, researchers were also able to extract fossilized pollen and seeds from some of the Aethophyllum cones. The pollen itself is saccate, much like what we see in many extant conifers. By comparing the morphology of the pollen extracted from the cones to other fossil pollen records, researchers now feel confident that Aethophyllum is the source of pollen grains discovered in sediments from western, central, and southern Europe, Russia, Northern Africa, and China, suggesting that Aethophyllum was pretty wide spread during the Middle Triassic. Aethophyllum seeds were small, ellipsoid, and were not winged, likely germinating a short distance from the parent.

The stems of Aethophyllum are interesting in the own right. Thanks to their preservation, cross sections have been made and they reveal that these plants only ever produced secondary tracheids and primary xylem. The only place on the plant where any signs of woody secondary xylem occur are at the base of the cones. This adds further confirmation that Aethophyllum was herbaceous at the onset of sexual maturity.

Another intriguing aspect of the stem is the presence of numerous large air spaces within the stem pith. Today, this anatomical feature is present in plants like bamboo, Equisetum, and the flowering stalks of Agave, all of which exhibit alarmingly fast growth rates for plants. This suggests that not only did Aethophyllum reproduce early in its life, it also likely grew extremely fast.

1. Smallest fertile plant in the Grauvogel and Gall collections, with two stems extending from the root, and terminal ovulate cone (OC) on one branch (scale bar=10 cm). 2. Cross-section of stem in the Grauvogel and Gall collections showing cauline bundles with scanty wood (at left, top and right) surrounding large pith with large, aerenchymatous lacunae and interspersed pith parenchyma cells. Vascular cambium, phloem, and more peripheral tissues are not preserved (scale bar=200 μm). 3.Seedling in the Grauvogel and Gall collections showing primary root (R), cotyledons (C) and stem (S) with apically borne leaves (scale bar=10 cm).  Quoted from SOURCE

1. Smallest fertile plant in the Grauvogel and Gall collections, with two stems extending from the root, and terminal ovulate cone (OC) on one branch (scale bar=10 cm). 2. Cross-section of stem in the Grauvogel and Gall collections showing cauline bundles with scanty wood (at left, top and right) surrounding large pith with large, aerenchymatous lacunae and interspersed pith parenchyma cells. Vascular cambium, phloem, and more peripheral tissues are not preserved (scale bar=200 μm). 3.Seedling in the Grauvogel and Gall collections showing primary root (R), cotyledons (C) and stem (S) with apically borne leaves (scale bar=10 cm). Quoted from SOURCE

Mature Aethophyllum aren’t the only fossils available either. Many seedlings have been discovered in close proximity to the adults. Seedlings were also exquisitely preserved, depicting hypocotyl, a primary root system, two two-veined cotyledons, and a short stem with four-veined leaves arranged in a helix. The fact that seedlings and adults were found in such close proximity lends to the idea that Aethophyllum populations were made up of multi-aged stands, not unlike some of the early successional plants we find in disturbed habitats today.

The sediments in which these plants were fossilized can also tell us something about the habitats in which Aethophyllum grew. The rock layers are made up of a mix of sediments typical of what one would find in a flood plain or delta. Also, Aethophyllum aren’t the only plant remains discovered. Many species known to grow in regularly disturbed, flood-prone habitats have also been found. Taken together these lines of evidence suggest that Aethophyllum was similar to what we would expect from herbaceous plants growing in similar habitats today. They grew fast, reproduced early, and had to jam as many generations in before the next flood ripped through and hit the reset button.

Aethophyllums small size, lack of wood, and rapid growth rate all point to a ruderal lifestyle. Today, this niche is largely filled by angiosperms. No conifers alive today can claim such territories. The discovery of Aethophyllum demonstrates that this was not always the case. The fact that pollen has been found far outside of France suggests that this ruderal lifestyle worked quite well for Aethophyllum.

The terrestrial habitats of the Middle Triassic were dominated by the distant relatives of modern day ferns, lycophytes, and gymnosperms. Needless to say, it was a very different world than anything that we are familiar with today. However, that does not mean that the pressures of natural selection were necessarily different. Aethophyllum is evidence that specific selection pressures, in this case regular flood disturbance, select for similar traits in plants through time. Why Aethophyllum went extinct is anyone’s guess. Despite how well they have been preserved, there is still a lot of mystery surrounding this plant.

Photo Credit: [1]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]



The Japanese Umbrella Pine

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My first impression of the Japanese umbrella pine was that I was looking at a species of yew (Taxus spp.). Sure, its features were a bit more exaggerated than I was used to but what do I know? Trying to understand tree diversity is a recent development in my botanical obsession so I don’t have much to base my opinions on. Regardless, I am glad I gave the little sapling I was looking at a closer inspection. Turns out, the Japanese umbrella pine is most definitely not a yew. It is actually unique in its taxonomic position as the only member of the family Sciadopityaceae.

The Japanese umbrella pine goes by the scientific name of Sciadopitys verticillata. Both common and scientific names hint at the whorled arrangements of its “leaves.” I place leaves in quotes because they are not leaves at all. One of the most remarkable features of this tree is the fact that those whorled leaves are actually thickened, photosynthetic extensions of the stem known as “cladodes.”

Those tiny bumps along the stems are actually highly reduced leaves whereas the whorls of photosynthetic “leaves” are actually modified extensions of the stem called “cladodes.”

Those tiny bumps along the stems are actually highly reduced leaves whereas the whorls of photosynthetic “leaves” are actually modified extensions of the stem called “cladodes.”

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It seems that the true leaves of the Japanese umbrella pine have, through evolutionary time, been reduced to tiny, brown scales that clasp the stems. I am not sure what evolutionary advantage(s) cladodes infer over leaves, however, at least one source suggested that cladodes may have fewer stomata and therefore can help to reduce water loss. Until someone looks deeper into this mystery, we cannot say for sure.

As a tree, the Japanese umbrella pine is slow growing. Records show that young trees can take upwards of a decade to reach average human height. However, given time, the Japanese umbrella pine can grow into an impressive specimen. In the forests of Japan, it is possible to come across trees that are 65 to 100 ft (20 – 35 m) tall. It was once wide spread throughout much of southern Japan, however, an ever-increasing human population has seen that range reduced.

A 49.5 million years old fossil of a  Sciadopitys  cladode.

A 49.5 million years old fossil of a Sciadopitys cladode.

The gradual reduction of this species is not solely the fault of humans. Fossil evidence shows that the genus Sciadopitys was once wide spread throughout parts of Europe and Asia as well. Whereas the current diversity of this genus is limited to a single species, fossils of at least three extinct species have been found in rocks dating back to the Triassic Period, some 230 million years ago. It would appear that this obscure conifer family, like so many other gymnosperm lineages, has been on the decline for quite some time.

Despite the obscure strangeness of the Japanese umbrella tree, it has gained considerable popularity as a unique landscape tree. Because it hails from a relatively cool regions of Japan, the Japanese umbrella tree adapts quite well to temperate climates around the globe. Enough people have grown this tree that some cultivars even exist. Whether you see it as a specimen in an arboretum or growing in the wild, know that you are looking at something quite special. The Japanese umbrella tree is a throwback to the days when gymnosperms were the dominant plants on the landscape and we are extremely lucky that it made it through to our time.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

Gymnosperms and Fleshy "Fruits"

Fleshy red aril surrounding the seeds of  Taxus baccata.

Fleshy red aril surrounding the seeds of Taxus baccata.

Many of us were taught in school that one of the key distinguishing features between gymnosperms and angiosperms is the production of fruit. Fruit, by definition, is a structure formed from the ovary of a flowering plant. Gymnosperms, on the other hand, do not enclose their ovules in ovaries. Instead, their unfertilized ovules are exposed (to one degree or another) to the environment. The word “gymnosperm” reflects this as it is Greek for “naked seed.” However, as is the case with all things biological, there are exceptions to nearly every rule. There are gymnosperms on this planet that produce structures that function quite similar to fruits.

Cross section of a  Ginkgo  ovule with red arrow showing the integument.  Photo copyright Bruce Kirchoff, Licensed under CC-BY

Cross section of a Ginkgo ovule with red arrow showing the integument.

Photo copyright Bruce Kirchoff, Licensed under CC-BY

The key to understanding this evolutionary convergence lies in understanding the benefits of fruits in the first place. Fruits are all about packing seeds into structures that appeal to the palates of various types of animals who then eat said fruits. Once consumed, the animals digest the fruity bits and will often deposit the seeds elsewhere in their feces. Propagule dispersal is key to the success of plants as it allows them to not only to complete their reproductive cycle but also conquer new territory in the process. With a basic introduction out of the way, let’s get back to gymnosperms.

“Fruits” of  Cephalotaxus fortunei  (Cephalotaxaceae)

“Fruits” of Cephalotaxus fortunei (Cephalotaxaceae)

There are 4 major gymnosperm lineages on this planet - the Ginkgo, cycads, gnetophytes, and conifers. Each one of these groups contains members that produce fleshy structures around their seeds. However, their “fruits” do not all develop in the same way. The most remarkable thing to me is that, from a developmental standpoint, each lineage has evolved its own pathway for “fruit” production.

Ginkgo  “fruits” are full of butyric acid and smell like rotting butter or vomit.

Ginkgo “fruits” are full of butyric acid and smell like rotting butter or vomit.

For instance, consider ginkgos and cycads. Both of these groups can trace their evolutionary history back to the early Permian, some 270 - 280 million years ago, long before flowering plants came onto the scene. Both surround their developing seed with a layer of protective tissue called the integument. As the seed develops, the integument swells and becomes quite fleshy. In the case of Ginkgo, the integument is rich in a compound called butyric acid, which give them their characteristic rotten butter smell. No one can say for sure who this nasty odor originally evolved to attract but it likely has something to do with seed dispersal. Modern day carnivores seem to be especially fond of Ginkgo “fruits,” which would suggest that some bygone carnivore may have been the main seed disperser for these trees.

“Fruits” contained within the female cone of a cycad ( Lepidozamia peroffskyana ).

“Fruits” contained within the female cone of a cycad (Lepidozamia peroffskyana).

The Gnetophytes are represented by three extant lineages (Gnetaceae, Welwitschiaceae, and Ephedraceae), but only two of them - Gnetaceae and Ephedraceae - produce fruit-like structures. As if the overall appearance of the various Gnetum species didn’t make you question your assumptions of what a gymnosperm should look like, its seeds certainly will. They are downright berry-like!

Berry-like seeds of  Gnetum gnemon .

Berry-like seeds of Gnetum gnemon.

The formation of the fruit-like structure surrounding each seed can be traced back to tiny bracts at the base of the ovule. After fertilization, these bracts grow up and around the seed and swell to become red and fleshy. As you can imagine, Gnetum “fruits” are a real hit with animals. In the case of some Ephedra, the “fruit” is also derived from much larger bracts that surround the ovule. These bracts are more leaf-like at the start than those of their Gnetum cousins but their development and function is much the same.

Red, fleshy bracts of  Ephedra distachya .

Red, fleshy bracts of Ephedra distachya.

Whereas we usually think of woody cones when we think of conifers, there are many species within this lineage that also have converged on fleshy structures surrounding their seeds. Probably the most famous and widely recognized example of this can be seen in the yews (Taxus spp.). Ovules are presented singly and each is subtended by a small stalk called a peduncle. Once fertilized, a group of cells on the peduncle begin to grow and differentiate. They gradually swell and engulf the seed, forming a bright red, fleshy structure called an “aril.” Arils are magnificent seed dispersal devices as birds absolutely relish them. The seed within is quite toxic so it usually escapes the process unharmed and with any luck is deposited far away from the parent plant.

The berry-like cones of  Juniperus communis .

The berry-like cones of Juniperus communis.

Another great example of fleshy conifer “fruits” can be seen in the junipers (Juniperus spp.). Unlike the other gymnosperms mentioned here, the junipers do produce cones. However, unlike pine cones, the scales of juniper cones do not open to release the seeds inside. Instead, they swell shut and each scale becomes quite fleshy. Juniper cones aren’t red like we have seen in other lineages but they certainly garnish the attention of many a small animal looking for food.

I have only begun to scratch the surface of the fruit-like structures in gymnosperms. There is plenty of literary fodder out there for those of you who love to read about developmental biology and evolution. It is a fascinating world to uncover. More importantly, I think the fleshy “fruits” of the various gymnosperm lineages stand as a testament to the power of natural selection as a driving force for evolution on our planet. It is amazing that such distantly related plants have converged on similar seed dispersal mechanisms by so many different means.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

I've Got the Colorado Blues

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You would be hard pressed to find a resident of temperate North America who has never seen a Colorado blue spruce. These iconic trees are a staple of every sapling give-away and can be found in countless landscape plans all over the continent. There is no denying the fact that the blue hues of Picea pungens have managed to tap into the human psyche and in doing so has managed to spread far beyond its relatively limited range. However, despite its popularity, few people ever really get to know this species. Even fewer will ever encounter it in the wild. Today I would like to introduce you to a brief natural history of Picea pungens

Despite its common name, P. pungens is not solely a denizen of Colorado. It can be found in narrow swaths of the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming, Idaho, south to Utah, northern and eastern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and of course, central Colorado. There are also some rumored populations in Montana as well. It has a very narrow range compared to its more common relative the Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii). Whereas some authors consider the Colorado blue spruce to be a subspecies of the Engelmann spruce, the paucity of natural hybrids where these two species overlap suggests otherwise. It is likely that Colorado blue spruce split off from this lineage and has since followed its own evolutionary trajectory.

Male cones are short-lived but quite attractive.

Male cones are short-lived but quite attractive.

One of the reasons P. pungens has become such a popular landscape tree is due to its extreme hardiness. Indeed, this is one sturdy tree species. Not only can it handle drought, P. pungens is also capable of surviving temperatures as low as -40 degrees Celsius with minimal foliar damage. Little stands in the way of a well established Colorado blue. In the wild it can be found growing on gentle mountain slopes at elevations of 6,000 to 10,000 feet. It is also a long lived and highly fecund tree. The most highly productive seed years for P. pungens begin at age 50 and last until it reaches roughly 150 years of age. Seeds germinate best on bare soils, which probably keeps this species limited to these mountainous areas in the wild.

The typical female cone of the Colorado blue spruce.

The typical female cone of the Colorado blue spruce.

Another component of its landscape popularity is its characteristic blue color. In reality, not all trees exhibit this coloration. Its blue hue is the result of epicuticular wax deposits on the leaves as they are produced in the spring. Not all trees produce the same amount or consistency of wax and therefore not all look blue. Wax production seems to be controlled by a genetic factor and therefore is often a shared trait among isolated populations. The wax functions as sun screen, reflecting harmful UV rays away from sensitive developing foliage. This is why it is most prominent in new growth. The wax can and often does degrade over the span of a growing season, resulting in duller trees come fall. 

Despite how interesting this spruce is, Picea pungens, in my opinion, represents the epitome of lazy landscaping. Like Norway spruce and Norway maples, P. pungens seems to be an all too easy choice for those looking to save a quick buck. As a result, countless numbers of these trees line streets and demarcate property boundaries. Though P. pungens is native to North America, its narrow home range makes its ecological function elsewhere quite minimal. Though one could certainly do worse than planting this conifer, it nonetheless overshadows more ecologically friendly tree choices. 

Photo Credit: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]