Paleobotany, climate change and stomata

Photo credit: The Irish Times

Prof Jennifer McElwain (right) and Dr Claire Belcher, with plants in a carbon dioxide atmosphere chamber, as part of the programme for experimental atmosphere and climate, at UCD Thornfield. Photograph: Eric Luke

Our climate is changing at a faster pace than ever before in geological history’

Research Lives: Prof Jennifer McElwain, UCD School of Biology and Environmental Science

by Claire O’Connell

You are a paleobotanist – what does that mean?

“Paleo” means old and “botany” means the scientific study of plants. So I study fossil plants, many of them older than the dinosaurs. These ancient plant remains can tell us a lot about climate change in the past.

Where is the most interesting site that you have collected plant fossils?

Astartekløft, in east Greenland within the Arctic Circle. A team of five of us were helicoptered there in July 2000 for a National Geographic expedition. We spent four wonderful weeks digging up 200-million-year-old fossils, avoiding polar bears and eating Parmesan cheese and salami sausage.

We collected more than 4,500 fossil plants and spent the next decade trying to piece together the ancient landscapes that the fossils revealed, and how plants in the past responded to natural global warming events caused by volcanism.

How do you figure out ancient plant survival tactics?

Using the fossils we worked out how many species were around in Greenland over 200 million years ago, then we reconstructed the climate of the time and tracked the fossil species to examine which went extinct and which survived global warming.

We discovered that generalist plant species survived better than specialists, which were more likely to go extinct as the climate warmed. A good example of a generalist is a species that does not rely on another species to reproduce (that other species may go extinct!) but uses the wind to reproduce.

We also saw that when there is a small amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leaves have lots of tiny openings or pores called stomata. However, when the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, the plants tend to develop far fewer stomata.

Read the full article: The Irish Times


Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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