Editor’s note: This issue we feature Steven Manchester, Curator of Paleobotany at the Florida Museum of Natural History and Affiliate Professor in the Departments of Biology and Geology at the University of Florida. Steven has been in the news recently because of his discovery of Central America’s oldest marine mammal, but he has a long-standing interest in petrified woods, fossil leaves, and seeds.
I loved rocks from an early age. While on long family drives my parents would stop at my request to visit interesting road cuts. There was a lot of fresh road construction activity back then when the interstate highway system was still under development. At age 10, I attended an Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) summer camp near Fossil, Oregon. There I maintained my interest in agates and crystals, but became more interested in the petrified woods, fossil leaves and seeds found on short hikes from the camp which is now a part of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. After the first summer I was hooked, and with the help of scholarship from Oregon Agate and Mineral Society I was able to return the following years. Eventually OMSI elevated me to camp counselor and in 1976 the museum hired me to lead a 5-week summer paleobotany program for high school students, which I continued to run through my graduate school days. The students helped me assemble collections of fossil plants from various locations in north central Oregon and these collections have remained an important resource for continuing research.
I am interested in the changing patterns of plant distribution over geologic time. For example, Ginkgo, now native to China, was formerly distributed throughout the northern hemisphere and in South America as confirmed by their distinctive fan-shaped leaves and associated seeds. Similar scenarios are revealed by the fossil record of many flowering plant families, including members of the walnut family, the elm family and many others. Sequoia, now confined to western North America, is found as fossils in Europe and Asia. This kind of information is crucial for discerning the history of plant groups when DNA cannot help us due to extinctions that have greatly reduced geographic ranges of plants from which we can harvest generic material. I also find it interesting to apply information from the fossil plant record to infer past climate change. It still seems amazing to dig up remains of subtropical forest in places that are now semi-desert, like eastern Oregon and central Wyoming.
I have been saddened by the recent closure of public lands to serious amateur collecting with passage of the “Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (PRPA)”, aimed at criminalizing fossil collecting on public lands by the public which, in a twisted way, is referred to as “theft.” In my view this is an unconstitutional infringement on our right to pursue happiness. By restricting the collection of nearly all fossils (plants, invertebrates, etc.) in an attempt to protect some rare vertebrate fossils, we have cut off a major citizen scientist avenue, and without children being introduced to the fun of collecting fossils, I wonder if we will have a next generation of paleontologists.
I now do more of my collecting in other countries like India and China, which do not require bureaucratic permits for collecting fossils. In the United States, collecting of fossils on private land is still OK, if permission is granted by the owner. Building good relationships with land owners and those operating quarries and mines may be the best way to gain access for collecting fossils going forward.
Over the years, I have enjoyed working with many volunteers, and have benefited greatly from the kindly donations of specimens and locality information. One of the most amazing of these friends, Thomas J. Bones (1892-1990), began collecting agatized nuts and seeds in the Eocene Clarno Formation of Oregon in the 1930s and continued doing so through the 1980s, amassing a huge personal collection that included fossil walnuts, acorns, moonseeds, palm seeds and numerous other kinds of subtropical plants. These fossils have been important in documenting the history of many different plant families, and in showing strong similarities with the Eocene forests of Europe. Mr. Bones transferred the majority of this collection, consisting of thousands of specimens, to the paleobotanical collections at Smithsonian and University of Florida, and this was the basis of my 1994 book on the fossil fruits and seeds of the Clarno Nut Beds. Several of the new species were named in honor of Tom Bones. Mr. Bones’ collecting of this site “put it on the map” as an important paleontological site. Ironically, it is now part of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, where amateur collecting is now prohibited. You can see some of his spectacular specimens on display at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. A major part of his collection is also housed at the Florida Museum and can be viewed on request–simply make an advance appointment with me: [email protected]
To learn more: