Academic Minute
5:00 am
Mon March 24, 2014

Dr. Peter Wilf, Penn State University -- Tracing the Path of Conifer Fossils

Studying the fossilized remains of animals and plants can teach us a great deal about the natural world.

In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Peter Wilf, professor of geosciences at Penn State University, traces the path of conifer fossils from New Zealand to Argentina.

Dr. Peter Wilf is a professor of geosciences at Penn State University's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. His work has taken him all over the world where he uses fossil plants to investigate ancient ecosystems, study changes in the environment and observe the evolution of plants and plant-insect associations. In 1998, he earned a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.

About Dr. Wilf

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Dr. Peter Wilf - Tracing the Path of Conifer Fossils

Do 52 million year old plant fossils from Argentina matter to orangutans in southeast Asia?

Let’s start with a simple exercise: think of a conifer tree. You may be imagining something like a pine or redwood. But, many conifers live in tropical mountain rainforests and have wide leaves. A famous one of these is the kauri, or Agathis to botanists. It dominates tall rainforests all the way from New Zealand to the orangutan world in Indonesia.

Everywhere it lives, the kauri is under severe logging threat because of its valuable softwood. How old is the kauri, and where has it lived in the deep past? All the fossil kauris ever found were from New Zealand and Australia, where they still live. So -- now imagine you are somewhere else, a place where I work: a remote area of dry grasslands in Patagonia, Argentina.

There, fossil lake-beds preserve hundreds of plant and animal species from 52 million years ago, when Patagonia was warm, wet, and volcanic, looking a lot like today’s mountains of Java, and Antarctica was forested and still very close to South America and Australia. And what did we find there, but the most spectacular fossils of the kauri ever seen, and lots of them, with leafing branches and beautiful cones- along with many other plants that I’ve also seen covering today’s mountain orangutan forests of Borneo. All of them are long extinct in South America and, of course, Antarctica.

We now see that these plants have adapted to climate change and land movement on an epic scale, over millions of years, by shifting their ranges many thousands of kilometers, and riding Australia north, into Asia. So, a big part of the orangutan’s world is-- a kauri forest that came from Antarctica. That is fundamental information we can use to make better conservation decisions, and it comes from fossils.

And that is just part of my day job!

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