Dinosaurs may be the focus of much Cretaceous fossil hunting, but a Penn State researcher and his colleagues are hot on the trail of fossil plants in Patagonia, Argentina, thanks to a $1.57 million grant from the National Science Foundation as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
"We are finding thousands of well preserved 66 to 47 million-year-old fossils from an extremely under-sampled part of the world and approximately 80 percent of the more than 500 species we have collected so far are new to science," said Peter Wilf, associate professor of geosciences and principal investigator on the project. "This time period includes the 'dinosaur' extinction and recovery as well as important global warming and cooling events."
Fossils from this time period are best known from Western North America, but Patagonian fossils would help researchers understand plant evolution, distribution and ecology in South America. Southern hemisphere fossil plants would also help in better understanding modern biodiversity in the region.
The researchers, who also include Rudy Slingerland, professor of geoscience, Penn State; Maria Gandolfo-Nixon, Cornell University; N. Ruben Cuneo, Museo Paleontologico Egidio Feruglio (MEF), Trelew, Argentina, and Ari Iglesias, La Plata University, Argentina, as principle investigators, are investigating whether a major plant extinction occurred when the dinosaurs went extinct and if the length of time for recovery from that event was as long as in North America. They are also determining where the modern relatives of the fossil plants live. So far, modern relatives are found from the western tropical Pacific to the New World tropics. The researchers also want to determine whether an ancient rainforest environment was present in Patagonia.