Fossil Plants and Spores: Modern Techniques
by T.P. Jones and N.P. Rowe
Geological Society of
London, 1999, 196 p.
In Fossil Plants and Spores: Modern Techniques, Tim Jones and Nick Rowe have produced a self-described "recipe book" for the collection, extraction, preparation, and study of all sorts of plant-derived fossils. In a Herculean feat of organization, the editors corralled 78 contributors to write 60 bite-sized chapters (averaging 4-5 well-illustrated pages) that cover a nearly complete spectrum of paleobotanical and palynological techniques. The book is almost as dry as it sounds, but it serves the important purpose of compiling the collective technical wisdom of our field. As the editors note: "One of the aims of this volume was...to include information of the sort that you might get to hear about personally but not find in the literature," (p. 1). Codification of this oral tradition of technique and practice is this volume’s most important contribution.
The book is divided into ten sections, each with a series of individually authored chapters. Part One begins with a discussion of how to locate and collect fossil plants and palynomorphs. This chapter concludes with the all-important contribution of toilet paper ("soft tissue" in this politely British volume) to paleobotany. This is followed by a series of chapters with detailed instructions on how to extract prizes of all sizes (micro-, meso- and macrofossils) from clastic or organic matrices. Part Two includes practical chapters on dégagement preparation, microscopy of various types of plant materials, and photography using both light and electron microscopes. Parts Three and Four contain chapters on the range of sectioning methods used in the study of anatomy and ultrastructure. Chapters cover the old stand-by acetate peel technique, thin and polished block sections, and microtechnique for the study of plant ultrastructure. (Thanks, Tom Taylor; I’ve always wondered how one got pollen grains to hold still for sectioning!) These chapters live up to the "recipe book" billing. They contain the fundamentals behind each technique, detailed instructions, and a list of materials. However, there are many ways to peel a coal ball and these details should not be considered canon. Most authors bring the spirit of experimentation--the hallmark of a good preparator--to their descriptions.
Part Five contains eight chapters outlining geochemical methods that can be applied to plant fossils. These provide an accessible and interesting introduction to these relatively new-fangled techniques. Pim van Bergen’s discussion on how to collect, transport, and store plant fossil material for geochemical analysis is particularly helpful. However, the chapters on stable isotope analysis, pyrolysis and chemolysis, DNA extraction, and mineralogical and bulk geochemical analysis are more like menus than a cookbook. Although pragmatic technical details are included, there’s not enough here to let the novice begin PCR. Instead, these chapters give insight into the new data these techniques can bring to the study of fossil plants. This will undoubtedly inform researchers who are considering delving into these techniques. More importantly, the overviews will help readers of the technical literature understand the power and limitation of these methods. The final paragraph of John Marshall and Barbara Yule’s chapter on spore color measurement also highlights the creativity that an ever-practical paleobotanist brings to technique: "The measurement of color with microspectrophotometers involves very specialist and...expensive equipment...However, one quantitative color measuring system which is widely available is that inherent in the software of most modern image analysis systems...Such image analysis equipment is readily available in most laboratories with the advantage of relatively low cost...Results from such a system...show that the simple measurement of G (green in the RGB scheme) provides a good relatively linear single color parameter" (p. 168).
Part Six is an unexpected, but important, section on databasing, curation, and nomenclature. Inexpensive, high-capacity computers and the Internet open a wide range of new questions and potential data sources for paleobotanists. As a field, we have fallen behind our colleagues in not fully applying these new technologies. Unfortunately, three short chapters barely scratch the surface, although I applaud the editors for opening the discussion. However, I was disappointed that phylogenetic approaches to nomenclature and systematics did not receive a word in this volume, particularly when several of contributors have pioneered phylogenetic systematics in paleobotany.
Parts Seven, Eight, and Nine present a sumptuous smorgasbord of methods ranging from sedimentology, taphonomy, and biostratigraphy, to the reconstruction of climate and ecology. Most of these chapters have a quantitative flavor and include discussions of how to interpret data, with illustration from real-world examples. Particular gems in these sections include Tom Phillips and Bill DiMichele’s summary of the quantification of peat-forming communities using data from coal balls, Greg Retallack on paleosols, Geoffrey Creber and Jane Francis with an overview of tree ring analyses as applied to ancient wood, and David Beerling summarizing the use of stomatal indices for reconstructing paleo-pCO 2 . I was a bit disappointed that neither chapter on biostratigraphy managed to open the black box of how biozones are objectively constructed. However, the authors did give an excellent summary of their application. But perhaps the best part of these sections was seeing ataxonomic climate reconstruction methods like CLAMP (Jack Wolfe and Bob Spicer’s climate-leaf analysis multivariate program) described side-by-side with floristic and nearest-living-relative approaches. The authors of these chapters succeed in highlighting the strengths, limitation, and grounding assumptions of the methods, leaving the reader to evaluate the merit of each for herself.
Part Ten is yet another useful surprise: a summary of international regulations for the collection and transport of fossils. For the countries covered (I was particularly pleased to see China on the list), these summaries are invaluable. However, coverage is spotty. Mexico, Argentina, India, Russia, and the countries of eastern Africa are notable, fossil-rich, omissions. The book concludes with a comprehensive reference list (although I wish they had included references at the end of each article), an eclectic glossary, and a list of commonly used equipment and suppliers that will be useful for researchers embarking on a new technique.
To the editors’ credit, it took some time to think of a technique or type of plant fossil not covered in this compact volume (phytoliths, the silica bodies found in the tissue of many plants, were not mentioned). The short-article format and good bibliography will make this book a must for the well-stocked library and highly recommended for research students. But don’t wait! I suspect this volume will sell out before your rapid-setting epoxy resin cures.
Copyright: Palaeontologia Electronica, 15 April 2000