Day 6: Fossils are fantastic!

After a weekend of talking to anyone who would listen / couldn’t politely remove themselves from the conversation, about plants, I headed into the lab Monday morning to see what else we could learn from this diverse research group.

Karen had a few things planned for us. We started off the day by building our own herbarium (collection of leaves, catalogued, to be made use of again at a later date). We used our leaf samples from Friday for this and pressed them together to be used later in the week.

Following this, we were introduced to the fossils. I will never allow anyone say fossils are boring or of little interest again! It was absolutely amazing to stand over a leaf, preserved in the rock layer, that had been on the earth long before us – 201 million years to be precise! It sounds like a small thing but it was just really exciting to know that this leaf had witnessed things that we can only dream about seeing and try to put together through scientific replication. We spent some time examining the different leaves and imprints visible and Karen dazzled us with her knowledge of several plant species and terms from fossils taken in Greenland that I had never even heard before (Stachyotaxus elegans anyone? No? Anomozamites?!) 

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Having come to terms with how brilliant it was to be able to witness this intact piece of plant history, we soon turned our attention to more samples, and I have every intention of returning to the fossil collection next week to check out the rest of them (See picture below, there are THIS many!)

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Our last task for the day was to discuss leaf economics. Considering how I tend to tune out when people mention Ireland’s mess of an economy, I was intrigued to discover leaves have their own currency (carbon) and as it turns out, they also find managing their economy not so straight forward. Karen informed us there are certain leaves (thicker, lusher leaves) that store up their carbon, as opposed to the thinner leaves, which go by the “live fast, die young” rule (basically, use it as soon as you get it… modelling their economic plan on our small island perhaps?!) It’s definitely a new way of thinking about plants!

These traits can be used to piece together what an ecosystem might have been like, along with other facts such as amounts of nitrogen present. On that note, we headed to the lab to crush and grind leaf samples that had been treated with different amounts of gases, to check their mineral content.

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This involved deciphering a fairly complex numbering system (thankfully carried out by Karen!) while our job was to crush and grind the ginkgo leaves into a powder form, to be analysed at a later date.

Again today we witnessed just how important it is to know and understand our plant kingdom, so that we can comprehend what went before us, and hopefully predict what might  be yet to come.

 

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