Plants! Explorer

I have commented here and there on social media over the years how much I’ve yearned for a good, beginner’s introduction to paleobotany on the level of many of the dinosaur and other prehistoric animal books out there. So far, the closest we’ve gotten to my desire for such a book is the Flora chapter in Saurian’s Field Guide to Hell Creek (a book I really need to review here as well), with the plant discussions in When Fish Got Feet, Bugs Were Big, and Dinos Dawned and the Earth Before Us series coming in close second. I recently discovered, however, that the “What On Earth” series had released a new entry in 2019 that makes some good steps towards the type of publication I have wanted to see, with another Nick Forshaw timeline book titled Plants! Explorer.

Designed in the same format as Bugs! Explorer and Mammals! Explorer (and mostly similar to The Nature Timeline Wallbook as well), Plants! Explorer begins with a few chapters explaining the natural history of plants both prehistoric and modern. It is loosely themed in such a way as to feel like we are reading the journal of the time-traveling Agent Osprey, though it doesn’t commit to this theme quite as much as some more lavishly designed books.

Plants! Explorer covers all the basics in plant biology, including flower & fruit anatomy, differences in biomes, and their relationship to humans in agriculture, but frames it all in the context of deep time. The first two chapters are largely devoted to plant origins, revealing how symbiosis with cyanobacteria led to the first algal and plant cells with chloroplasts amongst their organelles, as well as the adaptations that allowed the first true plants to move onto land. Cooksonia makes its obligatory appearance as one of the first land plants, and Archaeopteris (not to be confused with the famed Jurassic bird Archaeopteryx) shows up as well as “the first true tree”, much as they did in When Fish Got Feet, Bugs Were Big, and Dinos Dawned.

Guest starring the archetypal tadpole-looking jawless fish, Astraspis.

Nearly a whole chapter is devoted to the Carboniferous, when the Earth was overrun with a riot of diverse plant life, of which the “scale tree” Lepidodendron is possibly the most well-known. Readers likely recognize the Carboniferous for the giant bugs of the period, as featured in Bugs! Explorer among others. As this book points out however, it seems plants ultimately allowed for these huge arthropod sizes due to the sheer quantities of oxygen the unchecked plant life put out. This distant time period has a significant impact on us today, as these plants pulled vast amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air and into their bodies, many of which were ultimately buried. The vast majority of the coal we burn for fuel in the modern era is formed of Carboniferous plants, meaning we are releasing all that carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

Though not named in the text, the giant millipede Arthopleura and the giant dragonfly Meganeura appear in the chapter header.

The rest of the book starts to focus more on modern plants, though it refers back to prehistoric species whenever it has the excuse to. The final two chapters focus on human relationships with the plant kingdom, from the origins of agriculture, to our modern impact on the biosphere, to famous individuals associated with plant research. Gregor Mendel and his peas make their obligatory appearance, of course, foundational to genetic studies as they are, but I found myself particularly interested in Lynn Margulis. I had not heard of her before, but I’m glad to have learned of her now, as she championed several theories of endosymbiosis, including the hypothesis that chloroplasts were former cyanobacteria that had been incorporated into plant cells as organelles. Further research has backed up her ideas, which now form the consensus view on the origins of many groups of life.

(The book also commendably makes sure to point out the human cost of our relationship with certain plants. The ills of deforestation and carbon emissions are of course mentioned, but more significantly it calls out sugar cane and cotton plantations in particular as major factors that contributed to the intensification of the historical slave trade.)

As with other titles in the “What On Earth” series, Plants! Explorer ends with a six foot long, fold out timeline (which I would be tempted to describe as “giant”… had I not just reviewed the even more massive A Brief History of Life on Earth). My kids always love pulling these old and poring over all the little details in them. Of particular note, fossil plants of the Rhynie Chert, a 410 million year old site in Scotland, get their own little inset within the timeline. The amazing preservation of this site often allows scientists to examine them even down to the cellular levels, providing an incredibly valuable snapshot of the earliest Devonian. Devonian plants, incidentally, take over the space allotted to the Cambrian, Ordovician, & Silurian, which is squished into a small section with only a couple representatives for this stretch of time. The rest of the chart is well fleshed out, however, with plenty of Mesozoic taxa, and many for the Paleogene and Neogene as well. The Quaternary gets the largest section, as many of the plants most important to human society came about through artificial selection in the last 10,000 years.

One of my kids showing off the Plants! Explorer fold-out timeline at full length.

While it seems my ideal paleobotany book still has yet to be written, I nevertheless applaud this book for it focus on the plant kingdom, and its clear descriptions of plants throughout time. I would love to see more on the subject, but for now, Plants! Explorer definitely scratches an itch I’ve been feeling for years. It has a broad age range appeal, and I recommend it for anyone wanting to give their children a deeper understanding and appreciation of the plant kingdom. Unless some future book comes along that completely blows this one out of the water, I am perfectly happy to give Plants! Explorer the Dino Dad Stomp of Approval!

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