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Paleobotanists focus their studies on the biology of fossil plants. Every subdiscipline of plant science from anatomy and developmental studies to molecular biology and systematics provide insights invaluable for interpreting the fossil record of plants. It is not surprising that plant taxonomy and paleobotany have always been closely allied fields. Just as a plant taxonomist describes names and classifies living plants, the paleobotanist applies the same methodology to fossils. Today plant taxonomy and paleobotany are more strongly allied than ever.
You have already read about the use of phylogenetic methods to estimate the evolutionary history of groups of living plants. All those living plants had extinct ancestors and understanding the fossil record of a group of plants can provide the plant taxonomist with clues of when and where modern groups originated and how they obtained their present distribution. Today plant taxonomists work closely with paleobotanists and use data from the fossil record along with phylogenetic methods to estimate when major lineages of modern plants appeared. In the past, a plant taxonomist studying a family of flowering plants would examine only material from herbaria. Now it is common place to either look at fossil material from the group or work in conjunction with a paleobotanist.
Some paleobotanists focus their attention on using the fossil record to reconstruct past climates. Many of these researchers use a methodology that doesn’t depend on knowing the taxonomy of the fossil plants used in their studies. However, other paleobotanists are concerned with looking at modern plants and applying what we know about their biology to their relatives in the fossil record. These kinds of studies can only be undertaken in the context of a taxonomic framework and have the potential to provide some very significant insights regarding how plants may respond to human induced climate change. For example, the level of carbon dioxide today is higher than any other interglacial stage. By tracking the fossil history of the relatives of modern plants through periods of elevated carbon dioxide levels we may get a clue how plants will respond today to increasing levels of carbon dioxide.
Clearly paleobotany is a multidisciplinary field and is an ideal endeavor for anyone with a broad interest in plant biology. Those interested in pursuing studies as a paleobotanist will find multiple means of entering the discipline. In some cases, a paleobotanist is trained primarily as a geologist. Most paleobotanists in the U.S. are trained primarily as plant biologists and have taken courses in all areas of plant science as well as in microbiology, mycology (study of fungi), phycology (study of algae) and, of course, geology. However, angiosperm paleobotany is one of the most attractive areas of study for an individual with a strong interest in plant taxonomy and can be pursued by working with either a paleobotanist or a plant taxonomist.
Paleobotanists traditionally find employment in higher education or in museums. Paleobotanists are also employed by agencies (e.g.United States Geological Survey). A background in paleobotany is useful for those interested in forensic botany since both of these areas identify plants based on fragmentary material and require a good knowledge of plant anatomy. Finally, an exposure to paleobotany provides one with the ability to take fragmentary information and put together a picture of what happened in the past. This kind of thinking translates nicely in many fields both within and outside of plant sciences. A student completing an undergraduate thesis in paleobotany was once chided by a faculty member in a business department by being asked if he could ever do anything useful by studying paleobotany. The young man smiled and said “I now have the ability to take a job away from a business major”.
Melanie DeVore, Georgia College & State University