ASU Paleobotanist Shares His Love of Fossil Plants on National Fossil Day

October 14, 2015

When you think of fossils, dinosaurs or other ancient animals may come to mind.

But for paleobotanist Kathleen Pigg, plants have always been much more interesting.

Fossilized in limestone, this sunfish was found in the Green River near Kemmerer, Wyoming. It dates from the Eocene era and is around 50 million years old.
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Growing up in Ohio, she spent her days surrounded by plants as she walked through the woods with her mother. Pigg said it fueled her deep love of plants, but she never had any particular plans to study plant fossils.

“The fossil part kind of came second,” said Pigg, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences. “Some paleontologists are little kids who loved fossils, but I was a little kid who loved plants.”

Pigg ended up studying plant fossils after a course at Ohio State University landed him working in a faculty member’s lab as an undergraduate researcher.

“You know what it’s like when you’re young and you start doing things in someone’s lab,” Pigg said. “Nowadays everyone has undergraduates in their labs doing projects, but that wasn’t so common in the ’70s.”

Since that time, Pigg has not stopped studying ancient plants. Throughout her career, she has focused on a number of different historical eras ranging from 15 million to 500 million years ago.

While paleobotanists often stick to a single era, Pigg’s experience across many eras has given him a broad view of how plants have changed throughout history. With this specialty, she focuses on the evolutionary history, biogeographical distribution and adaptations of many plant groups. By examining how plants have adapted to different climates and moved around the world, Pigg’s research may help show how modern plants might be affected by global warming.

“Earth was very hot in the Eocene era, so you had things like palm trees in Canada,” Kathleen said. “The reason it’s scientifically important is because it gives us a lot of information about how these groups of plants evolved and moved around the planet.”

Although she never intended to spend her life studying fossils, her appeal quickly grew.

“There’s nothing better in the world than breaking a rock and finding something,” Pigg said. “You are the first person to see this fossil in 15 million years. People think archeology is cool, but that’s only thousands of years old. The fossils are millions of years.

Pigg has had many opportunities to experience this joy firsthand in one of the fossil soils where she conducts research. At the Stonerose Interpretive Center and Eocene Fossil Site in Republic, Washington, anyone can rent a pickaxe, learn how to find fossils, and spend the day roaming the lake bed at looking for samples.

Guests can keep up to three fossils per visit. On-site staff members examine each sample in case rare or important pieces are unearthed.

The important thing, Pigg said, is that such opportunities grow the paleontology community and allow enthusiasts to gain hands-on experience. It also helps researchers like her find the important fossils among the thousands of common fossils.

In addition to his research, Pigg manages plant fossils in ASU’s Natural History Collection. Most of the collection was inherited from Emeritus Professor James Canright. It contains everything from well-preserved wood anatomy to fossilized pollen.