International Journal of Plant Sciences
A long-standing problem in paleobotany is the accurate identification of the growth habits and statures of fossil plants. Tissue-specific analysis of stable carbon isotope ratios in plant fossils can provide an independent perspective on this issue. Lignin, a fundamental biopolymer providing structural support in plant tissues and the second most abundant organic material in plants, is ^(13)C depleted by several parts per thousand, averaging 4.1‰, relative to other plant constructional materials (e.g. cellulose). With this isotopic difference, the biochemical structural composition of ancient plants (and inferred stature) can be interrogated using microscale in situ isotope analysis between different tissues in fossils. We applied this technique to a well-preserved specimen of the Late Paleozoic seed plant Medullosa, an extinct genus with a variety of growth habits that includes several enigmatic yet abundant small-stemmed species widely found in calcium carbonate concretions (“coal balls”) in the Pennsylvanian coal beds of Iowa, USA. It remains unclear which of the medullosans were freestanding, and recent analysis of the medullosan vascular system has shown that this system provided little structural support to the whole plant. The leading hypothesis for small-stemmed medullosan specimens predicts that cortical tissues could have provided additional structural support, but only if they were lignified. The expected isotopic difference between lignified tissue and unlignified tissue is smaller than that expected from pure extracts, for the simple reason that even woody tissues maximally contain 40% lignin (by mass). This reduces the expected maximum difference between weakly and heavily lignified tissues by 60%, down to ~0.5‰–2‰. Analysis of the medullosan stem reveals a consistent difference in isotope ratios of 0.7‰–1.0‰ between lignified xylem and cortical tissues. This implies low abundances of lignin (between 0% and 11%) within the cortex. This inferred structural biochemistry supports hypotheses that the peripheral portions of these medullosan stems were not biomechanically reinforced to permit the plants to grow as freestanding, arborescent trees. A number of climbing or scandent medullosans have been identified in the fossil record, and this mode of growth has been suggested to be common within the group on the basis of observations from comparative biomechanics, hydraulics, and development. Finally, this mode of growth is common in several clades of stem group seed plants, including Lyginopteris and Callistophyton, along with Medullosa. This study provides further support for ideas that place a great portion of early seed plant diversity under the canopy, rather than forming it.
Wilson, J. P., and Fischer, W. W., 2011, Geochemical Support for a Climbing Habit within the Paleozoic Seed Fern Genus Medullosa: International Journal of Plant Sciences, v. 172, no. 4, p. 586-598.