Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/April 1888/The Earliest Plants



THE knowledge of fossil plants and of the history of the vegetable kingdom has, until recently, been so fragmentary that it seemed hopeless to attempt a detailed treatment of the subject. Our stores of knowledge have, however, been rapidly accumulating in recent years, and we have now arrived at a stage when every new discovery serves to render useful and intelligible a vast number of facts previously fragmentary and of uncertain import.

Oldest of all the formations known to geologists, and representing perhaps the earliest rocks produced after our earth had ceased to be a molten mass, are the hard, crystalline, and much-contorted rocks named by the late Sir W. E. Logan Laurentian, and which are largely developed in the northern parts of North America and Europe, and in many other regions. So numerous and extensive, indeed, are the exposures of these rocks, that we have good reason to believe that they underlie all the other formations of our continents, and are even world-wide in their distribution. In the lower part of this great system of rocks, which, in some places at least, is thirty thousand feet in thickness, we find no traces of the existence of any living thing on the earth. But, in the middle portion of the Laurentian, rocks are found which indicate that there were already land and water, and that the waters and possibly the land were already tenanted by living beings. The great beds of limestone which exist in this part of the system furnish one indication of this. In the later geological formations the limestones are mostly organic—that is, they consist of accumulated remains of shells, corals, and other hard parts of marine animals, which are composed of calcium carbonate, which the animals obtain directly from their food, and indirectly from the calcareous matter dissolved in the sea-water. In like manner great beds of iron-ore exist in the Laurentian; but in later formations the determining cause of the accumulation of such beds is the partial deoxidation and solution of the peroxide of iron by the agency of organic matter. Besides this, certain forms known as Eozoon Canadense have been recognized in the Laurentian limestones, which indicate the presence at least of one of the lower types of marine animals. Where animal life is, we may fairly infer the existence of vegetable life as well, since the plant is the only producer of food for the animal. But we are not left merely to this inference. Great quantities of carbon or charcoal in the form of the substance known as graphite or plumbago exist in the Laurentian. Now, in more recent formations we have deposits of coal and bituminous matter, and we know that these have arisen from the accumulation and slow putrefaction of masses of vegetable matter. Further, in places where igneous action has affected the beds, we find that ordinary coal has been changed into anthracite and graphite, that bituminous shales have been converted into graphitic shales, and that cracks filled with soft bituminous matter have ultimately become changed into veins of graphite. When, therefore, we find in the Laurentian thick beds of graphite and beds of limestone charged with detached grains and crystals of this substance, and graphitic gneisses and schists and veins of graphite traversing the beds, we recognize the same phenomena that are apparent in later formations containing vegetable débris.

The carbon thus occurring in the Laurentian is not to be regarded as exceptional or rare, but is widely distributed and of large amount. In Canada more especially the deposits are very considerable.

The graphite of the Laurentian of Canada occurs both in beds and in veins, and in such a manner as to show that its origin and deposition are contemporaneous with those of the containing rock.

The quantity of graphite in the Lower Laurentian series is enormous. Some years ago, in the township of Buckingham, on the Ottawa River, I examined a band of limestone believed to be a continuation of that described by Sir W. E. Logan as the Green Lake limestone. It was estimated to amount, with some thin interstratified bands of gneiss, to a thickness of six hundred feet or more, and was found to be filled with disseminated crystals of graphite and veins of the mineral to such an extent as to constitute in some places one fourth of the whole; and, making every allowance for the poorer portions, this band can not contain in all a less vertical thickness of pure graphite than from twenty to thirty feet. In the adjoining township of Lochaber Sir W. E. Logan notices a band from twenty-five to thirty feet thick, reticulated with graphite veins to such an extent as to be mined with profit for the mineral. At another place in the same district a bed of graphite from ten to twelve feet thick, and yielding twenty per cent, of the pure material, is worked. As it appears in the excavation made by the quarrymen, it resembled a bed of coal; and a block from this bed, about four feet thick, was a prominent object in the Canadian department of the Colonial Exhibition of 1886. When it is considered that graphite occurs in similar abundance at several other horizons, in beds of limestone which have been ascertained by Sir W. E. Logan to have an aggregate thickness of thirty-five hundred feet, it is scarcely an exaggeration to maintain that the quantity of carbon in the Laurentian is equal to that in similar areas of the Carboniferous system.

If we ask more particularly what kinds of plants might be expected to be introduced in such circumstances, we may obtain some information from the vegetation of the succeeding Palæozoic age, when such conditions still continued to a modified extent. In this period the club-mosses, ferns, and mare's-tails engrossed the world and grew to sizes and attained degrees of complexity of structure not known in modern times. In the previous Laurentian age something similar may have happened to algæ, to fungi, to lichens, to liverworts, and mosses. The algæ may have attained to gigantic dimensions, and may have even ascended out of the water in some of their forms.

Whether this early Laurentian vegetation was the means of sustaining any animal life other than marine protozoa, we do not know.

If we ask to what extent the carbon extracted from the atmosphere and stored up in the earth has been, or is likely to be, useful to man, the answer must be that it is not in a state to enable it to be used as mineral fuel. It has, however, important uses in the arts, though at present the supply seems rather in excess of the demand, and it may well be that there are uses of graphite still undiscovered, and to which it will yet be applied.

Finally, it is deserving of notice that, if Laurentian graphite indicates vegetable life, it indicates this in vast profusion. That incalculable quantities of vegetable matter have been oxidized and have disappeared we may believe on the evidence of the vast beds of iron-ore; and, in regard to that preserved as graphite, it is certain that every inch of that mineral must indicate many feet of crude vegetable matter.

It is remarkable that, in ascending from the Laurentian, we do not at first appear to advance in evidences of plant-life. The Huronian age, which succeeded the Laurentian, seems to have been a disturbed and unquiet time, and, except in certain bands of iron-ore and some dark slates colored with carbonaceous matter, we find in it no evidence of vegetation. In the Cambrian a great subsidence of our continents began, which went on, though with local intermissions and reversals, all through the Siluro-Cambrian or Ordovician time. These times were, for this reason, remarkable for the great abundance and increase of marine animals rather than of land-plants. Still, there are some traces of land vegetation.

The oldest plants known to me, and likely to have been of higher grade than algæ, are specimens kindly presented to me by Dr. Alleyne Nicholson, of Aberdeen, and which he had named Buthotrephis Harknessii[2] and B. radiata. They are from the Skiddaw rocks of Cumberland. On examining these specimens, and others subsequently collected in the same locality by Dr. G. M. Dawson, while convinced by their form and carbonaceous character that they are really plants, I am inclined to refer them not to algæ, but probably to rhizocarps. They consist of slender branching stems, with whorls of elongate and pointed leaves, resembling the genus Annularia of the coal formation. Fig. 1Protannularia Harknessii (Nicholson) a probable Rhizocarp of the Ordovician period. I am inclined to believe that both of Nicholson's species are parts of one plant, and for this I have proposed the generic name Protannularia (Fig. 1). Somewhat higher in the Siluro-Cambrian, in the Cincinnati group of America, Lesquereux has found some minute radiated leaves, referred by him to the genus Sphenophyllum, which is also allied to rhizocarps. Still more remarkable is the discovery in the same beds of a stem with rhombic areoles or leaf-bases, to which the name Protostigma has been given.[3] If a plant, this may have been allied to the club-mosses. This seems to be all that we at present know of land-vegetation in the Siluro-Cambrian. So far as the remains go, they indicate the presence of the families of rhizocarps and of lycopods.

If we ascend into the Upper Silurian, or Silurian proper, the evidences of land-vegetation somewhat increase. In 1859 I described, in The "Journal of the Geological Society," of London, a remarkable tree from the Lower Erian of Gaspé, under the name Prototaxites, but for which I now prefer the name Nematophyton. When in London, in 1870, I obtained permission to examine certain specimens of spore-cases or seeds from the Upper Ludlow (Silurian) formation of England, and which had been described by Sir Joseph Hooker under the name Pachytheca. In the same slabs with these I found fragments of

Fig. 2.Nematophyon Logani (magnified). Vertical section.

fossil wood identical with those of the Gaspé plant. Still later I recognized similar fragments associated also with Pachytheca in the Silurian of Cape Bon Ami, New Brunswick. Lastly, Dr. Hicks has discovered similar wood, and also similar fruits, in the Denbighshire grits, at the base of the Silurian.[4]

Fig. 3.Nematophyton Logani (magnified). Horizontal section, showing part of one of the radial spaces, with tubes passing into it.

They are trees of large size, with a coaly bark and large spreading roots, having the surface of the stem smooth or irregularly ribbed, but with a nodose or jointed appearance. Internally, they show a tissue of long, cylindrical tubes, traversed by a complex network of horizontal tubes thinner walled and of smaller size. The tubes are arranged in concentric zones, which, if annual rings, would in some specimens indicate an age of one hundred and fifty years. There are also radiating spaces, which I was at first disposed to regard as true medullary rays, or which at least indicate a radiating arrangement of the tissue. They now seem to be spaces extending from the center toward the circumference of the stem, and to have contained bundles of tubes gathered from the general tissue and extending outward perhaps to organs or appendages on the surface. That the plant grew on land I can not doubt, from its mode of occurrence; that it was of durable and resisting character is shown by its state of preservation; and the structure of the seeds called Pachytheca, with their constant association with these trees, give countenance to the belief that they are the fruit of Nematophyton. Of the foliage or fronds of these

Fig. 4.Nematophyton Logani (magnified) Restoration.[5]

strange plants we unfortunately know nothing. They seem, however, to realize the idea of arboreal plants having structures akin to those of thallophytes, but with seeds so large and complex that they can scarcely be regarded as mere spores.

Multitudes of markings occurring on the surfaces of the older rocks have been referred to the algæ or sea-weeds, and indeed this group has been a sort of refuge for the destitute to which paleontologists have been accustomed to refer any anomalous or inexplicable form which, while probably organic, could not be definitely referred to the animal kingdom. There can be no question that some of these are truly marine plants; and that plants of this kind occur in formations older than those in which we first find land-plants, and that they have continued to inhabit the sea down to the present time. It is also true that the oldest of these algæ closely resemble in form plants of this kind still existing; and, since their simple cellular structures and soft tissues are scarcely ever preserved, their general forms are all that we can know, so that their exact resemblance to or difference from modern types can rarely be determined. For the same reasons it has proved difficult clearly to distinguish them from mere inorganic markings or the traces of animals, and the greatest divergence of opinion has occurred in recent times on these subjects.

Fig. 5.Buthotrepis Grantii. a genuine Alga from the Silurian, Canada.

The author of this work has given much attention to these remains, and has not been disposed to claim for the vegetable kingdom so many of them as some of his contemporaries.[6] I believe there are many real examples of fossil algæ, but the difficulty is to distinguish them.

The genus Buthotrephis of Hall, which is characterized as having stems, subcylindric or compressed, with numerous branches, which are divaricating and sometimes leaf-like, contains some true algæ. A beautiful species, collected by Colonel Grant, of Hamilton, and now in the McGill College collection, may be described as follows:

Butthotrephis Grantii, S. N. (Fig. 5).—Stems and fronds smooth and slightly striate longitudinally, with curved and interrupted stride. Stem thick, bifurcating, the divisions terminating in irregularly pinnate fronds, apparently truncate at the extremities. The quantity of carbonaceous matter present would indicate thick, though perhaps flattened, stems and dense fleshy fronds.

It may be well to mention the remarkable Cauda-Galli fucoids, referred by Hall to the genus Spirophyton, and which are characteristic of the oldest Erian beds. The specimens which I have seen from New York, from Gaspé, and from Brazil, leave no doubt in my mind that these were really marine plants, and that the form of a spiral frond, assigned to them by Hall, is perfectly correct. They must have been very abundant and very graceful plants of the early Erian, immediately after the close of the Silurian period.

It is not surprising that great difficulties have occurred in the determination of fossil algae. Enough, however, remains certain to prove that the old Cambrian and Silurian seas were tenanted with sea-weeds not very dissimilar from those of the present time. It is further probable that some of the graphitic, carbonaceous, and bituminous

Fig. 6.—Silurian Vegetation Restored. Protannularia, Berwynia. Nematophyton, Sphenophyllum, Arthrostigma, Psilophyton.

shales and limestones of the Silurian owe their carbonaceous matters to the decomposition of algae, though possibly some of it may have been derived from graptolites and other corneous zoöphytes. In any case, such microscopic examinations of these shales as I have made, have not produced any evidence of the existence of plants of higher grade, while those of the Erian and Carboniferous periods, similar to the naked eye, abound in such evidence. It is also to be observed that, on the surfaces of beds of sandstone in the Upper Cambrian, carbonaceous débris, which seems to be the remains of either aquatic or land plants, is locally not infrequent.

Referring to the land vegetation of the older rocks, it is difficult to picture its nature and appearance. We may imagine the shallow waters filled with aquatic or amphibious rhizocarpean plants, vast meadows or brakes of the delicate Psilophyton and the starry Protannularia and some tall trees, perhaps looking like gigantic club-mosses, or possibly with broad, flabby leaves, mostly cellular in texture, and resembling algæ transferred to the air. Imagination can, however, scarcely realize this strange and grotesque vegetation, which, though possibly copious and luxuriant, must have been simple and monotonous in aspect, and, though it must have produced spores and seeds and even fruits, these were probably all of the types seen in the modern acrogens and gymnosperms.

"In garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
They stand like Druids of old, with voices sad and prophetic."

Prophetic they truly were of the more varied forests of succeeding times, and they may also help us to realize the aspect of that still older vegetation, which is fossilized in the Laurentian graphite; though it is not impossible that this last may have been of higher and more varied types, and that the Cambrian and Silurian may have been times of depression in the vegetable world, as they certainly were in the submergence of much of the land.

These primeval woods served at least to clothe the nakedness of the new-born land, and they may have sheltered and nourished forms of land-life still unknown to us, as we find as yet only a few insects and scorpions in the Silurian. They possibly also served to abstract from the atmosphere some portion of its superabundant carbonic acid harmful to animal life, and they stored up supplies of graphite, of petroleum, and of illuminating gas, useful to man at the present day. We may write of them and draw their forms with the carbon which they themselves supplied.

The considerations adduced by Professor Alfred Marshall, in answer to the question whether London is healthy, are applicable to other large cities. Many people live long in the metropolis, not because it is healthy, but because their exceptional health and strength induced them to come there. Most of the inhabitants who wore born elsewhere were, when they came, the picked lives, the strongest members of their several parishes. Numbers of London-born people have gone away to live elsewhere because they felt themselves unequal to the strain of metropolitan life. The death-rate of young women is low, partly because of the favorable conditions of life of domestic servants, and partly because young people who come to the city are likely to go home as soon as they get ill, to swell, perhaps, the death-rate of their native towns. Really, London is very unhealthy; for, although the population consists mainly of picked lives, and despite all the resources of wealth to counteract disease, the expectation of life is below the average.
  1. From the "Geological History of Plants," published by D. Appleton & Co., "International Scientific Series," vol. lxi.
  2. "Geological Magazine," 1869.
  3. Protostigmata sigillarioides, Lesquereux.
  4. "Journal of the Geological Society," August, 1881.
  5. Figs. 2, 3, and 4 are drawn from nature, by Professor Penhallow, of McGill College.
  6. "Impressions and Footprints of Aquatic Animals," "American Journal of Science," 1873.