7. The first plants: colonising wetlands

Probable spore from Bright Angel Shale, Grand Canyon (Cambrian) – photo: Paul StrotherMagma rising through the mantle during and after the Archaean formed new continental crust. As with the new continental shelves that developed into habitats for marine life, it took time for organisms to establish themselves on this barren, hard, initially steaming surface. Here we explore some of the evidence for the first stages in the process. Is it reasonable to suggest that recolonisation rather than step-by-step evolution best accounts for the fossil sequence?

Ecological succession

The process of vegetating barren land at the beginning may not have been dissimilar to the colonisation of volcanic islands formed today from eruptions on the ocean floor. The formation of new land has never totally stopped, so we can observe the sequence of events from the moment the lava cools. The colonisation of existing land after it has been volcanically resurfaced also offers insights. Though modern eruptions are puny compared to the cataclysm that caused the entire planet to be resurfaced, it is clear that vegetation greens up the land in stages, not all at once.

Typically the first colonisers are microbes, followed by lichens and mosses, herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees. Depending on climate and other factors, the later stages may never be reached, and successions do not always follow such a pattern. The order is determined by rates of growth and generation times, and by the fact that the later-arriving organisms depend for food on the earlier ones. Each stage builds on and adds to the one before, leading to a mature ecosystem where nutrients are recycled and a great variety of organisms interact to their mutual benefit.
Modern ecological succession

Bacteria, fungi and algae are the first to build communities. They release chemicals which break the rock into grains, adding to the fracturing and faulting of inorganic processes. Carbon dioxide dissolved in rain water reacts with the silicate minerals, washing away some and turning others into clay. Soil bacteria fix nitrogen into compounds useful to vascular plants, whose roots and humic acids further break up the ground, intensifying the weathering process. In due time, burrowing ants and earthworms join in the ferment. Over months and years, progressively greater depths of rock are converted into fertile soils. Energy consumption rises and the biological systems become more complex. The succession of events is ecological, not evolutionary. Micro-organisms do not evolve into mosses, or mosses into ferns. Each group has an independent origin from beyond the area colonised.

The correspondence between modern ecological successions and the order of fossils is not perfect. In many respects the yet-to-be-vegetated world was different from the modern world. Earthquakes, gravity slides and flash floods were continually eroding the mountains and producing ever thickening sheets of sand and mud. With surfaces so unstable, plants found it hard to get a foothold. In the places where fossils were most likely to be preserved – places of rapid deposition – ecological successions could not have occurred because the surfaces were continually being buried, so that one type could not have prepared the ground for another. They could occur only where conditions were quieter and rates of deposition slow enough to enable soils to develop.

Nor were new stocks of vegetation ‘just round the corner’. In the case of Surtsey, a volcanic island that formed off Iceland in the 1960s, plant seeds were plant seeds were introduced in the gizzards of migrating birds, whereas birds were scarce in the Devonian – they are absent from the fossil record – and many of the plant species that characterise modern ecosystems had not yet evolved. On an earth denuded of fauna and flora, there was no possibility of bringing in relief supplies from somewhere nearby. Ecological systems had to recover from scratch, in an uphill struggle where attempts at recovery were being repeatedly disrupted.

Thus, for some while, plant fossils tended to represent only pioneer species, at the beginning of potential successions. Although diversity was increasing, species that took successions beyond the pioneer stage stood a chance of impressing the fossil record, paradoxically, only when a locality that had been stable long enough for them to take root was overtaken by less stable conditions.

The places where vegetation would most easily have become established were those furthest away from the highlands, such as low-lying plains and deltas. Here the energy of rainstorms and other discharges of water was mostly dissipated and the rate of deposition of silts and clays on the margins of ephemeral river channels slow enough to give vegetation opportunity. Tectonic processes in the mountains had already done the hard work of converting hard rock into grains. The successful plants were those suited to wetland environments, comparatively simple in design. They were not pioneers in the sense of preparing the ground for others to follow. They took root because they were semi-aquatic plants that did not require mature soils, “r-strategists” that reproduced quickly and proliferated over wide areas.

Mosses and liverworts

Click here to view entire stratigraphic columnBacteria, fungi and algae reproduce by means of spores. So do certain plants, such as mosses, lycopsids (clubmosses), horsetails and ferns. Plant spores have very resistant walls and because of their lightness and smallness are easily transported by wind and water; the tough walls protect the spores against damage during transport, desiccation and attack by microbes. Consequently they are not only the best preserved plant remains in old sedimentary rocks but also the first and by far the most abundant. By contrast, the spores of bacteria, fungi and algae are rarely preserved.

Spores of mosses and liverworts are known from at least the mid Ordovician onwards, less certainly from the Cambrian, and their abundance increases with ascending stratigraphic level, as one would expect if plant fossils were reflecting the progressive recovery of vegetation. The macrofossil record is poor until the Devonian.

Though simpler than most plant types, mosses and liverworts are intrinsically complex, as is apparent from their life cycle and from their ability to photosynthesise. How they fit into the evolutionary tree of life is unknown. They each constitute separate lineages and are neither preceded by evolutionary forerunners nor followed by evolutionary successors. Capable of withstanding withstanding huge fluctuations in moisture and temperature, mosses and liverworts can survive in habitats inimical to other plants, and they have changed little over time because they are so well-designed for their particular ecological role. Although unchanging as a group, they have become extremely diverse over time. Almost 19,000 species are known today.

Mosses were among the first plants to grow on Surtsey. Within a few years they were growing around crevices and holes where steam kept the volcanic rock damp. Nitrogen-binding cyanobacteria were also found around the steam-holes. Just seven years after the first eruption in 1963, mosses and lichens were widespread on the bare lava.

The first fungi

Fungal hyphae from the Rhynie ChertFungi are not plants but multicellular organisms in a kingdom of their own. Their origin is as much an evolutionary mystery as that of the other kingdoms. More than 100,000 species are known, some aquatic, most of them terrestrial. They play a vital role as decomposers, recycling organic remains back to the environment in forms digestible by other organisms. Nearly all plants depend on symbiotic fungi to help the roots absorb minerals and water from the soil, while the fungi benefit by receiving carbohydrates from the plants. They appear about the same time as plants in the fossil record.

The oldest traces of fungi are filaments and spores from the Ordovician. These bear a strong resemblance to modern species that form filamentous structures in or among roots in order to increase the surface area for absorption. Fungal-looking filaments also occur in the Silurian, with some again looking like extant species. Numerous types of fungi have been observed among the plants fossilised in the Rhynie chert, from the early Devonian.

The first lichens

Lichens consist of fungi living in partnership with cyanobacteria or algae. DNA analysis of extant forms has led to the conclusion that lichens arose independently at least five times! The fossil record of lichens is poor, but cyanobacteria and algae first appeared in the Proterozoic, fungi probably also did, and there are reports of soils with lichen-like fossils dating back to the Cambrian. The oldest unequivocal lichen is Spongiophyton minutissimum, a widespread early Devonian fossil.

The first vascular plants

Painting by Zdenek Burian illustrating plant colonies in the Silurian and early DevonianPlant photosynthesis involves the absorption of carbon dioxide and the emission of oxygen, mediated through pores. Since large amounts of water vapour are lost in the process, plants higher than a few centimetres require specialised tissues to draw water from the ground. In vascular plants these tissues are of two types: xylem, which pipes up water and minerals from the roots to the leaves, and phloem, which distributes sugar and other products of photosynthesis from the leaves to the roots. Xylem also provides stems with rigidity, another requirement if plants are to grow higher than a few centimetres. The emergence of these tissues was one of the most significant events in the history of land plants. Some mosses also have conducting cells, but these are thought to have originated independently of vascular plants.

How natural selection acting on genetic mutations leads to new designs is far from clear, and assuming it did, one would expect it to give rise to no more than adequate design. The characteristics of distinctly good design, such as energy efficiency or ingenuity in the solution of a given problem, are evidence of an intelligent creative power. In this instance the design is superb. ‘It is difficult to imagine a cheaper process for driving the transpiration stream’, writes John Sperry. The automatic coupling between evaporation at the plant surface and the negative pressure achieved by capillary forces in the cell walls produces the driving force almost free of charge. Xylem conductivity per area exceeds that of non-vascular plants by six orders of magnitude.

Cooksonia pertoni, Upper Silurian of South Wales, height of plant 3.7 cmThe minimum requirement for such a system is a genetic program that causes the death of the cells lining the conduits and the manufacture and deployment of a substance (lignin) to strengthen the cell walls against collapse. These innovations were already in place by the late Ordovician, when vascular plants left evidence of themselves in the form of characteristic spores – there are even reports of spores back in the Cambrian. The oldest known whole vascular plant, Cooksonia, did not appear until the mid Silurian, when the processes of erosion and deposition around them were presumably now less destructive. Cooksonia was small (less than 10 cm high), simple in appearance, and like the spores initially rare. By the end of the period (supposedly millions of years later) it was globally widespread, though still rare, and comprised at least five species.

The relationship of Cooksonia to the later vascular plants is as little understood as the origin of the whole group. This later vegetation included zosterophytes (from the Greek for garland, describing the successively arranged sporangia, and phyton, meaning plant), rhyniophytes (named after the Scottish village of Rhynie), trimerophytes (referring to their multiple branching, as illustrated by Psilophyton below) and lycopods (referring to the resemblance of some branch tips to a wolf’s paw). Most did not have leaves and roots, but the lycopod Baragwanathia had leaves (as do mosses), and all of them branched upwards off horizontally growing stems called rhizomes, which anchored the plants. In other respects they differed markedly from each other, notably in the design of their conducting walls, which were more complex and various than with extant plants. Since these diverse groups all appeared about the same time (late Silurian-early Devonian), a shared ancestry seems unlikely. The zosterophytes, rhyniophytes and trimerophytes died out in the course of the Devonian and left no descendants. A few lycopod species exist today, though much diminished both in size and diversity. Rhizomes, by the way, are still a common feature of aquatic plants.

Baragwanathia, the earliest examples of which come from Australia, is especially problematic because it is taller and more ‘advanced’ than its fossilised contemporaries. Other anomalously early appearances include vascular plant fossils from Late Silurian deposits on Bathurst Island, Canada (Kotyk et al 2002), and Early Devonian deposits around Gaspé Bay, Canada. In the latter case, the plants achieved a stature of 2–3 metres and, as in-situ root traces show, were capable of rooting to a depth of nearly 1 metre (Elick et al 1998).

Because of these and many other discoveries the ‘somewhat simplistic’ picture of plant evolution has had to change (Edwards & Richardson 2004). Simplicity of outward form masks complexity at the cellular level. Almost from the moment they appear, vascular plants are diverse, making it difficult to see how, invisible to the fossil record, they might all have arisen from a single vascular plant ancestor. The gap between vascular plants and non-vascular plants such as the mosses and liverworts is even larger, as is the gap between all land plants and their closest presumed relatives, the green algae (Kenrick 2000). By contrast, the time gaps between them (all being attested from as early as the Ordovician) are comparatively small. Mega-evolution simply is not an appropriate inference to draw.

What Diane Edwards says about the assemblages of the Anglo-Welsh Basin is in fact true of all the sites where early plant fossils are found:

While it is recognized that the assemblages provide the most complete and extensive record of the history of vascular plants in a restricted geographical area during the time interval, it seems likely that major evolutionary innovation occurred elsewhere.

‘Major evolutionary innovation’ always occurs off camera. What we actually see is organisms that have already been ‘innovated’ – one might say, created – parachuting in from somewhere else, colonising virgin territory.