September 16, 2021

Ginkgo leaves help scientists decipher ancient climates

Richard Barclay opens a metal drawer in archives of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum containing fossils that are nearly 100 million years old. Despite their age, these rocks aren’t fragile. The geologist and botanist handles them with casual ease, placing one in his palm for closer examination. Embedded in the ancient rock is a triangular leaf with rounded upper lobes. This leaf fell off a tree around the time that T-rex and triceratops roamed prehistoric forests, but the plant is instantly recognizable. “You can tell this is ginkgo, it’s a unique shape,” said Barclay. “It hasn’t changed much in many millions of years.”

What’s also special about ginkgo trees is that their fossils often preserve actual plant material, not simply a leaf’s impression. And that thin sheet of organic matter may be key to understanding the ancient climate system – and the possible…

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