What is Paleobotany? - Definition & Importance

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Paleobotany allows us to know about the types of plants that lived long ago. It helps us to know more about what life on Earth was like in the distant past. Learn more about this fascinating science in this lesson!

Prehistoric Plants

What kinds of plants might a hungry dinosaur have eaten? When did flowers first appear on Earth? How did plants contribute to the formation of Earth's current atmosphere? All these questions, and many more, can be answered by the scientific field of paleobotany.

When did flowers first appear on Earth? Paleobotany has the answer!

What exactly IS paleobotany? Well, botany is the study of plants, while the prefix paleo comes from the Greek word paleon which means old, so paleobotany is the study of the plants that lived long ago. It is one half of a larger branch of science called paleontology which studies the history of life on Earth more generally. Paleobotany specifically focuses on the study of plant life, while paleozoology focuses on animal life.

We can learn a lot about the environment during prehistoric times by studying the types of plants that grew then. Fossilized plant life tells a story of how the Earth has changed over time. Studying plants can even tell us important information about the animals that lived long ago. Many animals, both today and in the past, eat a variety of plants, so learning about plants also gives new insights into the animals that ate them.

The History of Paleobotany

Paleobotany has a long history in the world of science. Plant fossils are usually easily recognizable, and people throughout the world have been finding and collecting them for hundreds of years.

By the early 1700s, several books had already been published that included illustrations of plant fossils. One of these, the Herbarium Diluvianum, included very detailed images and descriptions of fossilized plants collected from England, Germany, and Switzerland. At the time of its publication, this book represented the most comprehensive study of ancient plant life that had ever existed.

A fossilized tree root excavated from a site in Ohio.
A fossilized tree root excavated from a site in Ohio

Interest in paleobotany continued to grow over the next hundred years, and by the 1800s, scientists had begun to publish books containing much more specialized information about specific types of plants or the plants that grew in a certain region of the Earth. They had begun to recognize that it was possible to gather detailed information about the climate of the past just by examining fossilized plants.

Even the famous naturalist Charles Darwin recognized the importance of paleobotany. Although today, more attention is paid to Darwin's ideas about the evolution of animals, he was interested in plant evolution as well. He believed that a lot of information about the past could be learned using the tools of paleobotany. He was certainly right!

The study of paleobotany really took off in the last few years of the nineteenth century and has continued to the present day. This was mainly due to the prevalence of coal mining during this time. Many, many plant fossils were discovered throughout the world during the process of mining for coal, and the number of scientists who studied these fascinating fossils grew and grew as a result.

What Have We Learned From Paleobotany?

Paleobotanists have been able to learn a lot about the progression of life on Earth by studying the plants that lived long ago. We now know that the first land plants began to grow on Earth about 700 million years ago. This was LONG before any animals were able to survive on land, and in fact, the presence of these early plants probably played a big role in making the Earth's atmosphere more hospitable for animal life. Just like plants that live today, these prehistoric plants removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and released oxygen, changing the atmosphere and making it more likely that animals would be able to survive on land as well.

Paleobotany also tells us that the first trees evolved by about 385 million years ago. These were actually more like very large ferns, because plants did not produce seeds or flowers yet, but they were much taller than any plants that had come before.

Flowering plants, which account for more than 90 percent of all the plants on Earth today, appeared relatively recently in the fossil record, about 140-130 million years ago.

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