What’s in a name?

March 28th, 2016
By Allen,Sarah E

Archeologist and fellow blogger, Smiti Nathan Staudt (her blog here) asked how paleontologists name new species.  It is a bit more complicated than one might think!  Carolus Linnaeus founded the fields of taxonomy and nomenclature in the 1700s.  Taxonomy or classification is the process of defining groups composed of organisms that share similar traits.  Nomenclature is the field of naming a new taxon or species.  Both taxonomy and nomenclature form the field of systematics.

Four separate codes provide rules and recommendations for naming the organisms on earth. There are separate codes for animals, bacteria, and cultivated plants.  However, the code that applies in paleobotany is the International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi, and Plants (ICN).  Code_coverThe codes help provide a stable way to name taxa in order to ensure that there is only one name per taxon and that the name reflects a taxon’s accurate classification.  The names are always binomials (two names) in Latin.  Common names are not universal and are often ambiguous.  It is possible for the same organism to have dozens of common names in different languages, alphabets, or in different geographic regions.  Furthermore, common names can be misleading about an organism’s nearest “relative” (e.g., Spanish moss is not a moss at all; it is an angiosperm in the same family as pineapples!).

So how does one create a scientific name?  In paleontology, the organism often represents a new species.  Sometimes a new species does not fit in any modern or previously created genera, so a new genus must be created.  Genera are singular nouns, in the nominative case, with a capitalized first letter, written in italics.  A species name is always a binomial composed of the genus and the specific epithet. In the ICN code, the specific epithet can be an adjective that agrees in gender with the genus, a noun in apposition, or a noun in the genitive case.  The specific epithet is written in lowercase, also in italics, directly after the genus. The epithet may be arbitrarily composed as long as it is in Latin.  It can honor a person, indicate the country or locality in which the organism was found, or be a relevant descriptive adjective.  In the botanical code, the specific epithet cannot be the same as the genus (this is acceptable under the zoological code).  There are additional recommendations in the code, one of which is to avoid specific epithets that are long and difficult to pronounce.  While I have only mentioned a few rules about naming a new genus or species, the code regulates names at all taxonomic ranks.  All the rules in the ICN can be found here.

Code_insideOnce you have decided on a name following the rules of the ICN, the new species has to be effectively and validly published to be considered legitimate.  First, it must be in a printed or pdf formatted journal or book with an ISSN or ISBN number.  Furthermore, the name can only be composed of letters of the Latin alphabet with proper grammatical formatting.  A description or diagnosis is required as is the designation of a type specimen.  A type specimen is a name bearing specimen, one that links the name to the taxon.  If you are naming a new fossil species, an illustration or figure is required (this is not true for modern plants, but is recommended).  There were less restrictive rules in the past, so many names have been “grandfathered” in.  Finally, when needed, the codes also govern name changes.

Information compiled from materials from the course “Biological Nomenclature” taught in Spring 2011 at UF by Drs. Nico Cellinese, Walter Judd, and Norris Williams and directly from the ICN.

Helpful Resources

Botanical Latin by William T. Stearn

Melborne Code

Specific Examples

How have the names for the new species I have worked on been determined?  Here is the entomology for a few examples:

All these species were assigned to either a fossil or modern genus that had already been established.  More information and photos of some of these taxa can be found in blog posts from June and July of 2015.

Phoenix windmillis: This flower had a field name of Windmill as the petals are oriented just like the blades of a modern wind turbine.  I Latinized this word to create the specific epithet.  Phoenix is a modern genus commonly known as the date palms.

Icacinicaryites lottii: The specimens of this fruit were found by FLMNH paleobotany research assistant and lab manager Terry Lott in the summer of 2013.  We honored his find and named the species after him. Icacinicaryites is a fossil genus used for Icacinaceae fossils that do not align with a modern genus.

Iodes occidentalis: Occidentalis translates to “western” in Latin.  This seemed appropriate as the species is found in the fossil record of the western hemisphere, but the other (living) members of the genus are distributed in Africa and Asia today.

Goweria bluerimensis: These leaves were documented from the Blue Rim escarpment in the Bridger Formation of southwestern Wyoming, so the specific epithet acknowledges the locality.  The genus Goweria is used for fossil leaves assigned to Icacinaceae that have an uncertain placement within the family.

Final Note

Remember: One can never just use a specific epithet to refer to a species.  The full binomial with the genus name is the only correct way to refer to a species.


March 27th, 2016
By Allen,Sarah E

This semester has been busy with outreach events.  On Sunday, January 10th, I met with 15 students and two instructors from St. Olaf College who were on a field excursion in Florida. I gave them an overview of the Paleobotany collections area at the Florida Museum of Natural History (FLMNH) and answered questions.  I also helped coordinate additional activities for the day, which included a vertebrate fossil identification session led by Dr. Richard Hulbert with help from graduate student Victor Perez.  Dr. StOlaf_logo2Gordon Hubbell shared his private shark fossil collection, one of the top collections of this type in the world, with the group.  Thanks to Victor for coordinating that visit and to Gordon for hosting the group!  After their visit to Gainesville, the St. Olaf students spent ~2 weeks collecting fossils on the Peace River before driving back to Minnesota.


On Saturday, February 20th, I gave an hour long presentation about paleobotany and my research to the Florida Fossil Hunters in Orlando, FL.  This group of knowledgeable and enthusiastic citizen paleontologists meets once a month at the Orlando Science Center.  They also host numerous field trips and paleontological events for kids.  Since plant fossils are rare in Florida, I presented a brief overview of paleobotany and plant fossils through geological time before diving into my own research.  I enjoyed FFH_logomeeting many members of the Florida Fossil Hunters and wish them luck with their upcoming events.

Most recently, on Saturday, March 19th I met with the PaleoBlitz group, PaleoBlitz_logogave them a tour of the Paleobotany collections at the FLMNH, and answered questions.  Participants in the PaleoBlitz were citizen scientists from multiple fossil clubs who were selected to spend the weekend learning about “Best Practices in Paleontology.”  I enjoyed interacting with all of these groups of enthusiastic amateur paleontologists.


Blue Rim Thanksgiving

November 24th, 2015
By Allen,Sarah E

Could you have a traditional Thanksgiving meal 50 million years ago in southwestern Wyoming using what is known about the flora and fauna at Blue Rim?

Here is the target “traditional” Thanksgiving meal: Turkey, Stuffing, Cranberry Sauce, Green Bean Casserole, Mashed Potatoes, Vegetables (carrots), Dinner Rolls, and Pumpkin Pie.

Various geologic time periods will be referenced throughout this post. Here is a geologic time scale for reference. Everything is in the Cenozoic or Mesozoic era.

Turkey: Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) appeared relatively recently. There are numerous fossil records of the genus Meleagris in the Pliocene and Pleistocene. However, fossil records assignable to the subfamily Meleagridinae (where turkeys are found) are known from the Early Miocene. The fossil record of birds in general is spotty because their bones are light, hollow, and do not preserve well. Since turkeys were not available, the alternate meat options at Blue Rim ~50 Ma likely would have included: local turtles, crocodiles, clams, and snails, and nearby fish and mammals. Bird fossils have been found, albeit rarely, in the Bridger Formation.

Stuffing & Dinner Rolls: The main ingredient in both is wheat or Triticum aestivum which is in the Poaceae (Grass) family. Poaceae is the fourth largest family in terms of number of species, but it covers the most land area of any plant family and is the most economically important today. Grasses evolved in the Late Cretaceous and were widespread by the Early Eocene, but were rare compared to today. Open, grass-dominated habitats did not spread in North America until the Middle-Late Miocene.

There is some evidence for grass-like plants at Blue Rim, but don’t start baking the rolls just yet!  Leaf fragments with parallel venation similar to grasses are present, but they do not preserve any diagnostic characters and could represent one of many other monocotyledonous families. There are some fruit clusters with characters in common with modern grasses, but pollen preserved in the stamens lacks the diagnostic single pore. In addition, grass pollen has not been observed in the sediment.  Since grasses are wind-pollinated, the pollen should be present if they were nearby; however, grass pollen often degrades over time, so it may not have preserved.  More information about the fossil history of grasses can be found in the following paper: Stromberg, 2011.

Sadly, it likely would have been difficult to gather enough grains from the local Blue Rim flora ~50 Ma to prepare stuffing or dinner rolls.

18288-58201_edited_WEBgrass 18288-56290_edited_WEBgrass

Two grass-like fossils from Blue Rim.  Scale Bar = 1 cm.

Cranberry Sauce: Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) are in the Ericaceae or heath family along with rhododendrons and blueberries. Based on the evidence available, there were not any cranberries or their relatives present in the Blue Rim flora. The closest fossil relative is likely a specimen assigned to an extinct genus in the Polemoniaceae from the Eocene Green River Formation in Utah (Lott et al., 1998). The families Polemoniaceae and Ericaceae are related and both are found in the order Ericales.

Green Bean Casserole: Green beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) are in the Fabaceae or legume family. Fabaceae is the third largest family in terms of number of species and is the second most important plant family economically. The Fabaceae likely evolved in the mid to Late Cretaceous, but the fossil record is more extensive in the Paleogene, with diversification in the Eocene. No fossil beans have been recovered at Blue Rim. However, it is still possible that legumes were present as the leaf characters often mimic other families making them hard to identify. However, there are definitive fruits assignable to Fabaceae at the Kisinger Lakes site in northwest Wyoming. This fossil site is similar in age to Blue Rim, so if you were willing to take an extended walk (~150 miles) you might obtain some edible beans!  More information about the fossil history of legumes can be found in the following book: Herendeen, P.S. and D.L. Dilcher eds. (1992). Advances in Legume Systematics Part 4: The Fossil Record. United Kingdom: The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.


Fossil legume from the Kisinger Lakes site in northwestern, Wyoming.  Scale bar = 1 cm.

Mashed Potatoes: Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) are members of the Solanaceae or Nightshade family. This family also includes peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and tobacco. No fossils assignable to Solanaceae have been observed at Blue Rim. The oldest fossils confidently assigned to the Solanaceae that are approximately the same age as the Blue Rim fossils are found in the United Kingdom. A molecular analysis (Särkinen et al. 2013) placed the stem of Solanceae at ~49 Ma and the crown group (the current suite of genera) at ~30 Ma. Therefore, true potatoes probably did not even exist in the Early Eocene and there would be no mashed potatoes for dinner.

Carrots: Carrots, scientifically known as Daucus carota, are in the Apiaceae or Carrot Family. Few Apiaceae fossils are known. Herbaceous plants, such as carrot do not preserve as easily as woody plants. No Apiaceae fossils or their relatives are known from the Blue Rim flora or any nearby floras of similar age.

Pumpkin Pie: Pumpkin or Cucurbita pepo is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family along with melons. Sadly there are no fossils assignable to Cucurbitaceae at Blue Rim either, so a familiar dessert would not have been served.

If Thanksgiving had begun 50 million years ago instead of the 1600s, the “traditional “ meal everyone looks forward to today would be much different if it were based only on the flora and fauna present in the Blue Rim area of Wyoming at that time.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving and enjoy your meal!

Botany 2015 in Edmonton

August 7th, 2015
By Allen,Sarah E

I recently returned from this year’s Botany conference in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. It was held in the Shaw Conference Center overlooking the North Saskatchewan River. I presented on Monday during the Paleobotany student session. My talk focused on the leaf flora from the lower stratigraphic horizon at Blue Rim. This horizon has 20 non-monocot angiosperm leaf morphotypes. I used specific leaf characters that have been linked to climate to estimate the paleotemperature and paleoprecipitation. I also attended the Paleobotany Banquet, the ASPT (American Society of Plant Taxonomists) Banquet, and numerous talks. After the conference, I participated in a field trip exploring the post-glacial landscapes, history, and vegetation east of Edmonton. This excellent trip was led by Alwynne Beaudoin and Diana Tirlea from the Royal Alberta Museum.

My travel to Edmonton and participation in Botany 2015 was supported by the ASPT and NSF DEB award number 1404895.

15761N-061424_edited_WEB 15761N-43996_whole_edited1cm_WEB

Two of the leaf morphotypes (species) from Blue Rim. The leaf on the left is compound and toothed. The leaf on the right is simple and untoothed. Notice the large size of the leaf on the right. Scale bar for both = 1 cm.


View of the Shaw Conference Center in downtown Edmonton.


Foliage of Populus tremuloides (aspen). Aspen is the dominant tree species in and around Edmonton.


A male bison in Elk Island National Park.


A shallow lake at Elk Island National Park.


The North Saskatchewan River to the east of Edmonton near the site of a former Victorian fort and settlement.

Palm Flowers

July 14th, 2015
By Allen,Sarah E

Fossil palm flowers have been found at Blue Rim and other sites in the Rocky Mountain region.  These flowers, representing a new species named Phoenix windmillis, are related to date palms.  Modern date palms are native to Africa and southeast Asia, but are found in the Eocene of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah.  One of the flowers contained in situ pollen, which provided more characters to support the assignment of these specimens to Phoenix.  This new species is documented in a paper that was recently published in the International Journal of Plant Sciences.


Two Phoenix windmillis flowers from Blue Rim.  Scale bar = 5 mm


A flower from the Barrel Springs site in the Green River Formation.  This site is in southern Wyoming to the east of Blue Rim.  Scale bar = 5 mm


Pollen extracted from an intact anther of Phoenix windmillis and viewed using a scanning electron microscope (SEM).  Scale bar = 23.1 µm. (Note: there are 1,000 µm in 1 mm)

Plant Anatomy Short Course: Week 2

July 13th, 2015
By Allen,Sarah E

The second week focused on the secondary plant body or wood.  We studied the anatomical details of wood of both flowering plants and conifers.  We also touched on the development, function, evolution, ecology, variability, and uses of wood.  Week 2 was taught by Elisabeth Wheeler, Peter Gasson, and Pieter Baas – all experts in wood anatomy.

I would like to extend my thanks to all the instructors, the TA Becky Povilus, Faculty Assistant Jess Gard, and our awesome bus driver, Andrew Brown. Thank you also to Steve Manchester and Christine Davis who wrote letters of recommendation on my behalf.

Here are some photographs from the second week:


A cross or transverse section of Quercus robur (English oak) wood.  The annual rings are visible.  The larger vessels (for water conduction) are formed in the spring when resources are more plentiful.  This is termed “earlywood.”  Later in the growing season, when water is less plentiful the vessels are smaller and compose the “latewood.”


Rays and vessels in a tangential section of Dalbergia spruceana (rosewood).  Dalbergia is a genus in the pea family, Fabaceae.


Radial section of Ilex aquifolium (holly).


Tangential section of Pinus monticola (Western white pine) with a resin canal in one of the rays.  While angiosperms have vessels and tracheids, conifers only have tracheids to transport water and minerals.

When you walk by plants, think of them as living, breathing organisms.  Although they don’t move or behave like animals, they are interesting and complex, necessary for the ecosystem to function, and add incredible beauty to our world.


Leaves and fruits of Acer tataricum subsp. ginnala (Sapindaceae family).  This specimen, commonly known as the Amur Maple, arrived at the Arnold Arbortum in 1963 from the Kyoto Takeda Herbal Garden in Japan.

Plant Anatomy Short Course: Week 1

July 12th, 2015
By Allen,Sarah E

I recently attended a two week short course in Plant Anatomy at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston.  It was funded by the NSF microMorph program (More info here).  Week 1 was taught by Ned Friedman and Pam Diggle and focused on the primary plant body.  We squeezed weeks of material into 5 jam packed days!  We covered apical meristems, the epidermis, ground tissue, vascular tissue, secretory structures, stems, leaves, and roots.  In addition to learning about all these topics through engaging lectures, we spent our afternoons in the lab seeing and photographing various specimens.

Here are a few pictures from Week I:


Helical protoxylem from a celery (Apium graveolens) petiole.


Glandular trichomes (hairs) on Drosera capensis. The trichomes secrete mucilage that can be used to catch insects. Drosera is a genus of carnivorous plants commonly known as the sundews.


Water absorbing scales from a bromeliad. Pineapples and spanish moss are also in the bromeliad family.


Stellate (star-like) parenchyma in Juncus. Parenchyma is one of the ground tissues and can be found throughout a plant. Juncus is a genus of monocots commonly called the rushes.


A cross section of a mature root of Ranunculus (buttercup). The four “arms” of xylem (water conducting tissue) are visible in the center of the root.

As an aside, if you have never been to Boston or the Arnold Arboretum (More info here), they are both worth a visit!  The Arnold Arboretum is a beautiful park spanning 281 acres with 15,000 labeled primarily temperate woody plants.  There is no admission charge.  I also enjoyed visiting some of the Boston historic sites with several of the other students who were enrolled in the course with me.


The Hunnewell Visitor Center on the grounds of the Arnold Arboretum.

Icacinaceae at Blue Rim

June 15th, 2015
By Allen,Sarah E

The Icacinaceae* are found in tropical forests in Asia and Africa today. However, this family of woody trees, shrubs, and climbers is found in the Blue Rim flora along with other sites in the Eocene of western North America. At Blue Rim, I found two species of fruits assignable to Icacinaceae, along with one species of leaves. Two colleagues and I discussed our findings in a recent article which appeared in the American Journal of Botany ( http://www.amjbot.org/content/102/5/725.abstract). Our paper also documents another new species of Icacinaceae based on fossil fruits and discusses the biogeographical and paleoclimatic significance of finding Icacinaceae in the Eocene of North America.

*There is no regularly used common name for this family. For example, the Fabaceae are also known as the bean family.

I have included a several images of the leaves, Goweria bluerimensis, and the more common of the two species of Icacinaceae fruit, Iodes occidentalis, below.  The leaves have a 1 cm scale bar, while the fruits have a 0.5 cm scale bar.

DSC_3600_edited_leafblog Combined-counterparts-15761N_57228_leafblog DSC_3589_edited_leafblog

Allen_14_edited2_fruitblog Stacked-classic_51997_edited_fruitblog



Dickinson Hall Window Exhibit

February 24th, 2015
By Allen,Sarah E

The Paleobotany lab at the FLMNH has updated the east side display window in the Dickinson Hall courtyard on the University of Florida campus.  It contains four posters describing research by others in the lab, including work on lianas in Panama, leaf morphotyping, and fossil fruits of Anacardiaceae and Icacinaceae.  In addition, I had the opportunity to create a small exhibit about my fieldwork and research.  The display spans more than 20 feet in length so I was able to track a fossil’s journey from its discovery in the field to the lab through my own research experiences.  The exhibit includes a mock fossil quarry, panels on the benefits and hazards of fieldwork, information about curating and preparing fossils for study, case studies, and more.  If you are local, check it out!  For those of you who are not local, here are a few overview photos:




Behind the Scenes: Prepping the fossils in the lab

November 6th, 2014
By Allen,Sarah E

Once the fossils have been curated, they can be prepared.  Many specimens collected in the field will be only partially exposed. Rock layers or sediment may still cover more than half the fossil or maybe just a small part. Small needles, razor blades, and dental picks are used to uncover the buried fossil. It is best to do this detailed work in the lab rather than the field. The tools are more accurate, the lighting is better, a dissecting microscope is available, and most important, elements like wind, rain, and uncomfortable temperatures are non-factors!



Some fossils can be fully prepped in a minute or two, while others require hours of work. The time needed depends both on how much of the fossil is buried and the type of sediment it is in. Fossils preserved in soft sediments are more easily exposed than those in more resistant material.

IMG_0388_Mac_before_5cm   IMG_0390_Macginitiea_exposed_5cm

Macginitiea leaf before preparation on the left and after on the right.  Macginitiea is an extinct genus in the Platanaceae or Sycamore family.  Scale bar is 5 cm.

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