Taxonomy 2028 Challenge: Palaeobotany for future planning

Posted on behalf of Prof. Bob Hill (University of Adelaide), with help and contributions from a broad sector of the Australasian palaeontological community
By 2028 we will have a totally integrated record of fossil and living plants in Australia in a way that allows for the fossil pollen and spore record (microfossils) and the record of macrofossil remains to be linked as strongly as possible from the perspective of their taxonomic identity. This, along with the age and location of the fossils, can then be overlain on the current knowledge of living plants species and their distribution to demonstrate that the unique island laboratory that is Australia can be reconstructed vegetatively in a way that is unachievable elsewhere on Earth. 

Australia is unique in being a large, flat and mostly isolated land mass that has not undergone any major environmental upheavals for tens of millions of years except for climate change (and some coincidental changes in photoperiod and light availability). The plant fossil record is much larger than most people realize and it offers a stunning record of the change in vegetation that is about as extreme as it is possible to imagine for much of the continent (often from dense rainforest to arid desert). A full reconstruction of this would be an amazing achievement, and would highlight the precious nature of the Australian biota and its journey over millions of years. 

This work will result in a data base that will allow for sophisticated reconstructions of the past impact of climate change, the arrival of humans, changing fire regimes and much more. In the best case this will play directly into matters of significant community importance like planning for future climate change and best managing fire into the future. On another level it will provide researchers with unparalleled access to fossil data when utilizing the living flora for detailed evolutionary studies. Taxonomically well-validated fossils are critical for such studies, and are increasingly showing that molecular-derived dates of lineage divergences are often much too young. There is also potential amongst more recent fossils for ancient DNA and chemical fingerprinting of both micro- and macrofossils to better separate out genera and species. Overall this contributes to a stronger integration of the fossil vegetation record with the extant vegetation. 

All this matters because Australia has undergone extreme change in the past 40 million years and is highly vulnerable to future change. By increasing our level of understanding of the past and how it has shaped the present, we stand a better chance to influence what the future might look like. 

Resources to achieve this include smart young researchers who are committed to their own, but also to the collective, good. None of the research required here is expensive, but it needs a new generation of people with research skills that are fast disappearing. It also requires a very sophisticated databasing approach and firm overall control so that data is compatible across all areas. The approach taken should match that used for databasing the living Australian vegetation, but will include the need for better access to modern microscopy (scanning and transmission electron microscopy), automontage microscopy and some of the newer techniques for analyzing specimens such as neutron tomography, which is available at ANSTO.