Plant Life Through the Ages: Fossil Display

Thursday, December 3, 2015 to Sunday, April 3, 2016
Church Exhibition Gallery, Lyman Plant House

IntroExhibit Photos | Information Panels | Plant Reconstructions

Take a journey, back through time, to the beginnings of plant life on Earth with this display of plant fossils, plant reconstruction drawings, and informational panels relating to significant events in the Earth’s timeline.

This exhibit opened for the unveiling of Plant Life Through the Ages, our plant evolution mural permanently on display in the corridor leading from the Church Exhibition Gallery to the Palm House. The eight-panel 60-foot-long mural depicts great moments in the evolution of plants.

The fossils on display are from the extensive collection of the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College and one, a Pagiophyllum fossil collected locally at the dam in South Hadley Falls, is on loan from John Nicholson.

Plant Reconstructions

Early plant fossils are difficult to interpret due to their fragmentary nature, which hides the entirety of botanical characteristics we see with living plants. An important part of paleobotany involves using collections of fossil parts to theorize what long extinct species looked like as living plants. The drawings that result from these theories are called reconstructions. Whole plant reconstructions help us gain a better understanding of the flora that once covered the earth, but it’s important to remember that all reconstructions are to some extent hypothetical due to the fragmentary nature of plant fossils.

Notes on Fossil Nomenclature

It is difficult for paleobotanists to identify and categorize plant fossils. Usually, they do not see whole plant fossils, only fragments. As a result, a somewhat artificial system for classifying plant fossils was developed. This system groups together fossils on the basis of morphological resemblance of the separate parts of fossil plants. Each part is sometimes given a separate name. This name is called a morphotaxon or form genus. This can at times be confusing, since it is a very different kind of system from the botanical identification and classification of living plants.

Notes on the Age Estimates

The fossils on loan from the Beneski Museum at Amherst College were cataloged between the 1850s and 1950s. Please note that the estimated ages listed for the fossils might be different from what paleobotanists today might estimate. Fossil booklet.

Special thanks to Kate Wellspring, Beneski Museum Collections Curator, for sharing her knowledge and expertise and her willingness to work with us and lend us materials to create this wonderful paleobotanical showcase.

Alethopteris fossils