Fossil fern rhizomes as a model system for exploring epiphyte community structure across geologic time: evidence from Patagonia

PeerJ. 2019 Dec 12:7:e8244. doi: 10.7717/peerj.8244. eCollection 2019.


Background: In extant ecosystems, complex networks of ecological interactions between organisms can be readily studied. In contrast, understanding of such interactions in ecosystems of the geologic past is incomplete. Specifically, in past terrestrial ecosystems we know comparatively little about plant biotic interactions besides saprotrophy, herbivory, mycorrhizal associations, and oviposition. Due to taphonomic biases, epiphyte communities are particularly rare in the plant-fossil record, despite their prominence in modern ecosystems. Accordingly, little is known about how terrestrial epiphyte communities have changed across geologic time. Here, we describe a tiny in situ fossil epiphyte community that sheds light on plant-animal and plant-plant interactions more than 50 million years ago.

Methods: A single silicified Todea (Osmundaceae) rhizome from a new locality of the early Eocene (ca. 52 Ma) Tufolitas Laguna del Hunco (Patagonia, Argentina) was studied in serial thin sections using light microscopy. The community of organisms colonizing the tissues of the rhizome was characterized by identifying the organisms and mapping and quantifying their distribution. A 200 × 200 µm grid was superimposed onto the rhizome cross section, and the colonizers present at each node of the grid were tallied.

Results: Preserved in situ, this community offers a rare window onto aspects of ancient ecosystems usually lost to time and taphonomic processes. The community is surprisingly diverse and includes the first fossilized leafy liverworts in South America, also marking the only fossil record of leafy bryophyte epiphytes outside of amber deposits; as well as several types of fungal hyphae and spores; microsclerotia with possible affinities in several ascomycete families; and evidence for oribatid mites.

Discussion: The community associated with the Patagonian rhizome enriches our understanding of terrestrial epiphyte communities in the distant past and adds to a growing body of literature on osmundaceous rhizomes as important hosts for component communities in ancient ecosystems, just as they are today. Because osmundaceous rhizomes represent an ecological niche that has remained virtually unchanged over time and space and are abundant in the fossil record, they provide a paleoecological model system that could be used to explore epiphyte community structure through time.

Keywords: Botany; Eocene; Epiphytes; Fern; Fossil; Fungi; Liverworts; Osmundaceae; Paleoecology; Patagonia.

Grants and funding

This research was supported by U.S. National Science Foundation grants IIA-1322504 (Alexandru M.F. Tomescu), DEB-1556666, and EAR 1925755 (Peter Wilf), the American Philosophical Society (Alexandru M.F. Tomescu), and by a Paleontological Society G. Arthur Cooper Award, a Botanical Society of America graduate research award, the Alistair and Judith McCrone Graduate Fellowship (Humboldt State University), and a U.S. National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (No. 1546593) to Alexander C. Bippus. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.