Wednesday, September 3, 2014

New paper on fossil plant from the Neotropics

Yes, fossil plants! This is a first in this blog, which is otherwise, heavily biased towards marine tetrapods. However, that doesn't mean that when I do fieldwork I only focus on collecting fossil vertebrates. this of course has resulted in a number of publication on fossil invertebrates (e.g. Schweitzer et al., 2006), and now plants. The paper which was just published in the journal International Journal of Plant Sciences is a collaborative work led by former Florida Museum of Natural History colleague Fabiany Herrera, one of the few experts on fossil plants from the Neotropics, and his former advisors Steven R. Manchester and Carlos Jaramillo. The paper is a follows up on a previous paper published about four years ago in the same journal (Herrera et al., 2010), and that seeks to better understand the evolutionary and paleobiogeographic history of a group of plants called Humiriaceae that are found in the Neotropics, and western Africa. This group is mainly composed of large trees, most greater than 20 meters tall, and fruits have woody parts with very particular morphology, which results in a relatively high preservation and identification potential.
Map showing the distribution of fossil Humiriaceae endocarps (symbols) and extant genera (dashed lines) (modified from Herrera et al., 2010:fig. 1).
In the paper we describe fossilized endocarps (the inside part of the fruit) from the early Oligocene of Peru and Puerto Rico, and the late Miocene of Panama, and fossilized wood from the late Eocene of Panama (Herrera et al., 2014). The fossilized fruit from the Oligocene of Peru, which we dubbed Duckesia berryi, represents a new species of a tree that is nowadays only found in Amazonia, and is the oldest record of that genus. This not only shows that this particular taxon has an older history than previously thought, but it also shows that its former distribution was much more widespread. In addition to that, the fossil wood we describe, called Humiriaceoxylon ocuensis, shows that by the late Eocene parts of what is now Panama, was forested by large trees belonging to this particular group of plants. In addition, Fabiany had previously described a fossil Humiriaceae endocarp which he names Lacunofructus cuatrecasana from a locality near where the wood was found, and it may actually be that they represent the same tree (Herrera et al., 2012, 2014)*. This is a really cool find, as the region and where the fossils were collected, was not connected by land to neither North or South America, showing again, that overwater dispersal is not as much a problem for plants.
*Paleobotanists use different scientific names for the different parts of a plant as they are usually found separate, hence the endocarp has a name, and the wood another, even though they may be the same plant.
The fossil endocarp Duckesia berry (A-L) from the Oligocene of Peru, compared with the endocarp of the modern species D. verrucosa (M-O). (Modified from Herrara et al., 2014:fig. 1.)
The fossil from Puerto Rico consists of an endocarp of Sacoglottis tertiaria, otherwise known from the Neogene of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Panama (Herrera et al., 2010). Several species of the genus Sacoglottis are still found today, in the Amazonian region and west Africa. The fossil from Puerto Rico is from the early Oligocene San Sebastian Formation, one of my favorite formations where I've spent many hours searching for fossils. Actually, the locality where I found the endocarp is not far from where Aktiogavialis puertoricensis, Priscosiren atlantica, and a Caviomorph rodent tooth were collected (Velez-Juarbe et al., 2007; Velez-Juarbe and Domning, 2014; Velez-Juarbe et al., 2014).
The fossil endocarp Sacoglottis tertiaria from the early Oligocene San Sebastian Formation of Puerto Rico.
Fossil plants were previously described from the San Sebastian Fm. by previous workers, mainly, Arthur Hollick (1928) and Alan Graham and David Jarzen (1969). But none of the material they described indicated the presence of Humiriaceae in the island. In fact, they list many plant groups present in San Sebastian Fm. which are now absent from the flora of the island, now the Humiriaceae can be added to that list. As I recently said in a newspaper interview, Puerto Rico during the Oligocene was very different from nowadays, and there is still more to be discovered!

Assorted Musing
The fossil endocarp from Puerto Rico, was previously featured on this blog, it was the only thing I found in my two days of fieldwork in January 2009. I was a bit disappointed at first, but not any more!

I should also acknowledge my wife, it was because of her that I ended up visiting the Florida Museum of Natural History in the fall of 2012, which is where I met Fabiany, told him about the fossil endocarp, and I ended up being a co-author in his paper.


Graham, A., and D. M. Jarzen. 1969. Studies in Neotropical paleobotany. I. The Oligocene communities of Puerto Rico. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 56:308-357.

Herrera, F., S. R. Manchester, and C. Jaramillo. 2012. Permineralized fruits from the late Eocene of Panama give clues of the composition of forests established early in the uplift of Central America.

Herrera, F., S. R. Manchester, J. Velez-Juarbe, and C. Jaramillo. 2014. Phytogeographic history of the Humiriaceae (Part 2). International Journal of Plant Sciences 175:828-840.

Herrera, F., S. R. Manchester, C. Jaramillo, B. MacFaddem, S. A. da Silva-Caminha. 2010. Phytogeographic history and phylogeny of the Humiriaceae. International Journal of Plant Sciences 171:392-408.

Hollick, A. 1928. Paleobotany of Porto Rico. Scientific Survey of Porto Rico and the Virgin Islands 7(3):177-393.

Schweitzer, C. E., M. Iturralde-Vinent, J. L. Hetler, and J. Velez-Juarbe. 2006. Oligocene and Miocene decapods (Thalassinidea and Brachyura) from the Caribbean. Annals of Carnegie Museum 75:111-136.

Velez-Juarbe, J., and D. P. Domning. 2014. Fossil Sirenia of the West Atlantic and Caribbean region: X. Priscosiren atlantica, gen. et sp. nov. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 34:951-964.

Velez-Juarbe, J., C. A. Brochu, and H. Santos. 2007. A gharial from the Oligocene of Puerto Rico: transoceanic dispersal in the history of a non-marine reptile. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 274:1245-1254.

Velez-Juarbe, J. T. Martin, R. D. E. MacPhee, and D. Ortega-Ariza. 2014. The earliest Caribbean rodents: Oligocene caviomorphs from Puerto Rico. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 34:157-163.