A Study of Organic Fossils

Among the many questions future palynologists may ask each spring is what happens to the yellow pollen that is seen on cars, plants and is being breathed in? Thanks to earlier scientists that question can now be answered. In 1640, pollen fossils were discovered by Nehemiah Grew. That came about because of the discovery of the microscope. Others such as Robert Kidston, P.Reinsch, Christian Giottfried, Echrenberg, Gideon Mantell and Henry Hopley White added to previous information.

Niehemiah Grew, (1641-1712) a British botanist, at first was interested in animal anatomy and that interest led him to take up the study of plants. He became so fascinated and knowledgeable that he wrote his findings down in the Anatomy of Plants. That placed a world of information about the anatomy of plants out to those questioners who had previously nothing to read to sate their curiosity. It was he who designated the stamen and pistil as plant sex organs, male and female respectively. Today he is known as the father of plant anatomy, which he shares with M. Malpighi.

Palynology is not a word commonly known outside science. At first glance, seeing the last part of the word, ology, the suffix which means study, one immediately thinks it is related to paleontology, the study of fossils. One would be partly correct if it were not for three things that point in different directions: The different spelling, the fact that palynology relates only to organic fossils, and an explanation that the word was derived from paluno, a Greek word meaning to sprinkle, and from pale, a Greek word meaning dust.  

Robert Kidston is the next scientist accredited with furthering the field of study brought about by other ingenious scientists who had improved on the efficiency of microscopes. In the study of palynology, however, each had their own particular niche. P. Reinsch studied the spores in coal and compared them to fresh spores. Along with these pioneers in palynology, Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg, who made radiolarinans and diatoms his specialty (amoebas and one celled algae); Gideon Mantell, who worked mostly with desmids, (green freshwater algae) and Henry Hopley White, whose specialty was dinoflagellates (single celled marine life form). The field had advanced considerably from the time of Nehemiah Grew.  

Gideon Mantell, (1790-1852) A British Physican and a naturalist furthered the knowledge and study of organic fossils. His interest was mostly with dinosaurs and large animal fossils and even though he passed on knowledge about fossils, not much of it concerned plants in particular. Of course he probably noted plant life found in rocks or whatever other substance he was groveling around in, but these facts aren’t often found online today.

Most research material found about Mantell concerns his association with the study of fossils and anecdotes about where and when he and his wife found that large tooth, bone or other dinosaur fossil. People fascinated with dinosaur lore love him and they perpetuate the legends. These overshadow any plant material he may have found while out breaking up rocks looking for larger samples.

Why were pollen studies first undertaken? Most of these were first recorded in other languages than English, in Nordic mostly. The first information written for Europe and North America were in 1921. Gunnar Erdtman’s thesis on pollen was used to further knowledge about climate and vegetation as it then occurred.

In particular and in scientific terms palynomorphs, the fossilized remains studied are organic—once having lived— against inorganic—never have lived but contributing to life as a substance such as rocks, etc. As an example, a leaf found in a rock or a skeleton of a leaf that was preserved is an example of a previous organic life form found in an inorganic source.

Methods of extracting these materials vary from physically digging them out, sieving wet dirt, and by ultrasonic methods of detection and then using chemicals to remove non-organic materials from around these minute organic fossils. But, the question pops up, how can such minute fossilized pollen be detected? What are its special peculiarities that permit it to be recognized?

It can be found in dirt and rocks suspected of harboring these organic fossils. Possibly they will have been detected by sonograms. After retrieval of the dirt or rock dust suspected of harboring them, slides are then prepared. And it is true, as was said earlier in this article, only by means of the microscope can these be detected.

But what’s their purpose? Isn’t it enough to study pollen each season as it is produced? “Palynology can be applied to problems in many fields including geology, botany, paleontology, archaeology, pedology (soil study), and geography”.

Use is made of the information to date the age of soil and its many layers that designate a certain time in history; to learn what kind of vegetation grew during a certain time; life in  past environments; determinations of past temperatures of certain eras; learn about lakes and what kind of life lived in them; evolutionary studies; forensic studies for crime scenes; allergy studies; study of pollen and spores found in honey, Melissopalynology; how ancient peoples used plants; and for fuel explorations.