An ordinary-looking lump of stone chipped out of a cliff on the grounds of Park University turned out to be anything but.
Inside was a glimpse of what this part of the world looked like 306 million years and more than three mass extinctions ago, when this part of the world was a tidal swamp.
The stone held an exquisitely preserved fossil of a plant genus and species that were previously unknown to science. The so-called seed fern has clearly discernible pollen organs at the end of its fronds.
In the world of paleobotany, this is a big deal, the stuff of which scientific papers are written and the kind of specimen that would be welcome at the Smithsonian Institution.
“There’s nothing like them on the planet today,” said Patty Ryberg, an assistant professor of biology at Park University, which is keeping the fossil.
This brushlike plant is of a time before there were mammals, before there were dinosaurs, before there even were flowering plants. It grew when this part of what we now call North America was the edge of a supercontinent called Pangea.
“It was probably a kind of tidal setting,” said Scott Hageman, associate dean of the School of Natural, Applied and Social Sciences and an associate professor of geology at Park. “But it would have been very nasty water. The salinity, the conditions, the oxygen would just not have been suitable. It was a tough place to live.”
Hageman thinks this particular plant was probably washed gently from another location and sealed by sediment.
“Preservation is rarely this good,” he said. “It is carbonized, but it captures incredible detail. The setting right here was just right.”
A stem or branch of the fossilized plant still has carbon remains of life, and the pollen organs are visible as small round structures. Such reproductive evidence is particularly rare in the fossil record of plants, Ryberg said.
“The problem with plants is they’re puzzle pieces, and we don’t have the full picture,” she said. “So when we find a piece of the puzzle, it’s yes!”
Another fossil collected from the same strata and location as the seed fern is of an insect that looks very much like a cockroach of today. Some things don’t change that much.
This new plant genus and species was named Parkvillia northcutti after local amateur paleontologist Tim Northcutt, who had permission to be fossil hunting on Park University grounds.
“One day, I came across something I didn’t recognize from all the research I’d been doing while collecting for some 20 years,” Northcutt said. “It was so unlike anything I had ever seen it baffled me.”
Northcutt showed the fossil to Rudolph Serbet, a paleobotanist at the Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas.
“Once he had seen it, he knew it was something special, too,” Northcutt said.
Serbet, Hageman and other colleagues wrote an academic paper about the find that was published in the November Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology.
“Everyone likes dinosaurs, but these are older,” Ryberg said of the fossil features. “And if we didn’t have plants, what would happen to the dinosaurs?”
Natural history scientists will discuss the local discovery of a 306 million-year-old plant fossil at a public event Tuesday, July 25, at the National Archives, 400 W. Pershing Road.
The fossil of a seed fern, now extinct, was discovered by amateur paleontologist Tim Northcutt on the campus of Park University in Parkville. Northcutt will be joined by professors Scott Hageman, Brian Hoffman and Patty Ryberg of Park University.
The 6:30 p.m. program will follow a 6 p.m. reception. The event is free but reservations are requested by calling 816-268-8010 or emailing to firstname.lastname@example.org