Katsura Tree

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Jonathan G. Wingerath, M.F.S.

Jonathan Wingerath working with fossil plant specimens at the National Museum of Natural History

Photo by Smithsonian Institution

Jonathan Wingerath is a Museum Specialist who manages the Paleobotanical collections at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. He grew up in northern New York State and became interested in paleontology as a Geology major at St. Lawrence University. During vacations he explored the fossil bearing outcrops of local Ordovician limestones, finding an occasional trilobite, brachiopod, or crinoid fragment. At Yale, he received his master’s degree in Forest Soils and Hydrology. Between the summers of 1988 and 1989 he was employed by the State of New York to map large sections of the surficial geology in the St. Lawrence Lowlands. He also worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Department of Concepcion, Paraguay, teaching agroforestry practices to farmers, public school teachers and their students. Wingerath began his career at the Smithsonian in the Division of Sedimentology, applying his knowledge of geology, soils, and hydrology to projects involving the Nile River, Nile delta, and offshore sedimentation in the Levant region. His current work involves organizing and housing approximately 6.5 million fossil plant specimens, facilitating the work of paleobotanists at the Smithsonian and scientists from all over the world. He also prepares thin-sections of paleontological, biological, and geological materials.

Meet our associated expert

This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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Fossil flower from Green River Formation dated to the early Eocene
Photo by Smithsonian Institution, Department of Paleobiology

About Flowering Plants (Magnoliophyta): Paleobiology

Flowering plants (or angiosperms) are the dominant group of plants today, but newcomers compared to others. The earliest, clear evidence of angiosperms is from the Cretaceous (about 100 million years ago). Classifying the earliest angiosperm fossils is difficult because they tend to be leaves and pollen, rather than flowers that would permit conclusive identification. Competing theories explain angiosperm origins: that they lived in disturbed areas along stream corridors from which they invaded lowland habitats; that they began as understory plants in dark forests; that they originated in coastal areas and moved inland; or that they started as aquatic plants. Questions about angiosperm origins led Charles Darwin to describe their origins as an abominable mystery. After they appeared on the scene, angiosperms gradually and then rapidly replaced conifers and seed ferns in ecosystems. Advantages may have been faster reproductive cycles, their intimate relationship with insects for pollination, large photosynthetic leaves, and improved systems to transport water and nutrients. Which combination of characteristics allowed angiosperms to become so successful is a question of continuing debate for paleobotanists.

Fossil palm frond
Photo by Department of Paleobiology, Smithsonian

About Plants (Kingdom Plantae): Paleobiology

Plants on Earth began life in the water. The earliest plants were aquatic algae, living in the warm seas more than 500 million years ago. By the Silurian and possibly the latest Ordovician (as much as 440 million years ago), plant life on land had begun. While terrestrial plants had more access to sunlight, challenges included supporting their weight and distributing water throughout their tissues. During the Devonian explosion (55 million years, which is brief in geologic time), plants evolved from small, simple forms to a huge variety of larger, complex forms adapted to life on land. Club mosses, horsetails, ferns, and probably sphenopsids originated. The incredible seed, which safely packages the developing plant embryo, also evolved. Plants extended their reach underground with root systems, providing the anchor and water supply to support large trees. Although plants were to undergo many changes over time, by the end of the Devonian (the golden age of plant evolution), the groundwork had been laid for the terrestrial ecosystems of today.