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The Fossil Record of Ferns and Fern Allies in Australia


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Hill, RS and Jordan, GJ 1998 , 'The Fossil Record of Ferns and Fern Allies in Australia', in Patrick M. McCarthy (ed.), Flora of Australia , CSIRO Publishing, Canberra, pp. 29-36.

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Chapter Introduction: There is an excellent fossil record of ferns in Australia, and it provides an important source of
information on the phylogeny and biogeography of living ferns. The most important elements of the
fossil record are spores, sterile and fertile frond compressions and impressions, and the relatively
rare but highly informative petrified remains, usually rhizomes and stems. Because ferns are such
an ancient group of plants, much of the record cannot be applied directly to the extant flora.
Although this causes problems in interpreting the fossil record, and affinities often remain unclear,
the record relevant to living taxa is still imposing.
Pteridophyte spores are well-preserved and frequently seen in a wide range of sediments and are of
considerable taxonomic significance. Indeed, not only can spore wall ornamentation often be
observed, ultrastructural features may also be visible. One limit to the taxonomic value of the spore
record is the considerable convergence in spore morphology and anatomy in fossil and extant
pteridophytes, especially ferns. The consequent problems with the identification of dispersed fossil
spores are exacerbated by the frequent loss of the diagnostically important exospore.
Fragments of vegetative fronds are comparatively uncommon in the fossil record. However, while
these can sometimes be assigned to genera or families, identification is often impossible, because
available characters such as frond shape and venation show considerable convergence. Conversely,
fertile fronds tend to be much more useful, and those with in situ spores are among the most
confidently and precisely identified of all plant fossils, as well as being useful in confirming or
disproving the identity of dispersed fossil spores (e.g. Jordan et al., 1996). Tree fern stems and
rhizomes are beautifully petrified under some special conditions that are still not fully understood
and these can often be confidently identified.
In this brief review we concentrate on fossils that bear directly on living ferns and their allies, and
we provide examples that demonstrate particularly interesting biogeography or palaeoecology.
While many of the early fern-like fossils appear quite similar to living forms (e.g. Baragwanathia
W.H.Lang & Cookson and some extant Lycopodium species), these will not be dealt with here
because they are too remote from the living flora to be significant. Although the dispersed spore
record is difficult to summarise, we direct interested readers to the review articles of Dettmann
(1994) and Macphail et al. (1994) on the dispersed spore record and the role of ferns and fern allies
in the Australian flora over the last 100 million years or so.

Item Type: Book Section
Authors/Creators:Hill, RS and Jordan, GJ
Keywords: pteridophytes, Australia, palynomorphs, macrofossils, spores, palynology, extinction, evolution
Publisher: CSIRO Publishing
Additional Information:

Flora of Australia series is co-published by CSIRO PUBLISHING and the Australian Biological Resources Study.

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