Fossil plants could help this South African solve a 200-year-old puzzle

Paleobotanist Aviwe Matiwane is working in her native South Africa to find and catalog fossils of a plant that can give us insight into the climate and even food chains of a time before the dinosaurs.

Matiwane, who is a doctoral student at Rhodes University and the Albany Museum in South Africa, says that Glossopteris has no living relatives, but was an early example of a gymnosperm, that is, a plant that uses an exposed seed to reproduce, rather than a fruit.

This fossil plant existed during the Permian, 252-299 million years ago, and as well as now forming the oldest coal deposits in South Africa, plants have been used to solve a wide range of scientific mysteries. .

Glossopteris can tell us a lot about the past: for example, in some cases stomatal studies have been used to model changes in carbon dioxide (CO2) during the Permian and these are used to inform researchers about the conditions climatic conditions during this period,” she said. “Glossopteris may also be a link to prehistoric food webs, as the feeding patterns preserved on fossil footprints as well as the fossil insects found may help researchers to linking animal-plant interactions.”

Matiwane says fossils of the plant also support the concept of continental drift – the now accepted theory that continents once formed a massive landmass and separated over time – as fossils have now been found in all parts of the world. southern continents: Australia, Antarctica, India, South Africa and South America.

“My job is to find the best descriptive traits to identify and name Glossopteris Because the taxonomic approaches used to differentiate these leaves vary, most descriptions of these fossil plants rely on visual estimates of relatively few features,” she said, adding that species identification has proven subjective, inconsistent and extremely difficult.

Matiwane says the most important part of his study is solving the 200-year-old problem of how to classify and organize Glossopteris sheets.

“My work considers new approaches involving morphometric and ecological techniques with the aim of establishing a standardized methodology for leaf taxonomy of this group,” she said, “I am also developing a national and international database description of the leaves online that will be used by researchers around the world.”

Matiwane says her work is significant because she describes the first conclusive Middle Permian flora in South Africa.

“The study site is at Ouberg Pass (near Sutherland), which will contribute to the larger goal of establishing a reliable biostratigraphic framework for the Permian Glossopteris floras of the Karoo Basin,” she said. declared.

Matiwane says growing up in a small village in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, she has always loved plants and this walk with her grandfather is a formative moment.

“My grandfather is a self-taught botanist and he would take me for walks in the forest and show me the different types of plants and some of their uses,” she said. “I’ve always been intrigued by the evolution of plants, but having grown up in a rural village I didn’t know there was such a field as botany.”

She eventually earned both an Honors and MSc at Rhodes University in South Africa, studying the plant biodiversity of the Southern Mistbelt forests of the Eastern Cape.

Matiwane says there is not much knowledge about the broader areas of paleoscience among the South African public, even though fossils are part of the country’s national heritage.

“The public may know about dinosaurs, but not about fossil plants,” she said, adding that one of the biggest challenges is getting people to appreciate our wonderful fossil heritage.

“It was also difficult to face discrimination and racism as a black woman on the field,” she said.

Matiwane says one of the greatest opportunities to date has been at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, where she got to work on some of the originals. Glossopteris specimens,

“But most importantly, I show kids that scientists come in all different shapes and sizes and shapes,” she said, “I’m not the generalist/typical scientist in a lab coat that you see in your Google searches.”

Matiwane is part of the new generation of female paleontologists in the developing world. Another is Catalina Suarez, a Colombian geologist and paleontologist, who studies ancient mammal fossils, their paleobiology, and paleoecology, looking for clues to understand how climate change is affecting mammalian diversification and extinction rates.

MORE FORBESThis Colombian paleontologist is looking for clues to the extinction of mammals

She also contributed to “Hace tiempo, Un viaje paleontológico ilustrado por Colombia”, an illustrated book of palentology aimed at children: printed copies were sent free of charge to public schools throughout Colombia and the digital version is available for free download. from the Humboldt Institute of Colombia.