SWEET Team Blog 1, October 2018

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Stephanie – A year in the life of a Palaeontologist – PART 1

As the leaves start to change and the weather begins to cool, people are looking forward to the autumnal and winter season. With hopefully some snow near Christmas time! Could you imagine a time in the geologic past where there wouldn’t be a place on Earth that would have snow, a completely ice-free world?

My name is Dr. Stephanie Strother and I’m a Palaeontologist! I study plant fossils from millions of years ago to understand what the vegetation and climate was like in the world. The early Eocene (56-47.8 Ma) is where my research focuses on. It’s the warmest period in the last 66 million years where the Earth’s temperature was ~14°C warmer than today (Caballero and Huber, 2013). Can you picture the U.K. at 30°C in October! What would the U.K. terrestrial environment look like? That’s what the past year of my research has been about. As a Research Fellow for the Super-Warm Early Eocene Temperatures (SWEET) and climate project, my job was to generate a global collection of existing early Eocene palaeobotanical data to estimate what the climate and vegetation could have been.

What types of fossils are included in this collection? The plant fossils I focus on are macrofossils including leaf impressions, seeds and fossil wood. I also study microfossils such as pollen and spore grains. Pictured on the left are pollen and spore grains I identified from Wilkes Land, Antarctica and on the right a leaf impression from a site on Ellesmere Island in the high Arctic of Canada.

When you think of a Palaeontologist, Jurassic Park is probably one of the first images that come to mind. Working in the dirt digging up fossils or in a lab looking through the microscope. My work mostly involved looking at archives in museums and through large collections of journals to find all the information I could on what types of vegetation existed during the early Eocene. I went to the London Museum of Natural History to look into their fossil pollen and spore archives. They currently have an index of over 23,350 references. I first thought there wouldn’t be much published literature on this subject, but after starting my search I was definitely wrong! I have found hundreds of sites where scientists have found plant fossils existing in the early Eocene. More data is great, but how was I going to organize this all to be useful to others?

Find out the answer in the second part of my blog

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