Taphonomy pp 249-285 | Cite as

The Relationship Between Continental Landscape Evolution and the Plant-Fossil Record: Long Term Hydrologic Controls on Preservation

  • Robert A. GastaldoEmail author
  • Timothy M. Demko
Part of the Aims & Scope Topics in Geobiology Book Series book series (TGBI, volume 32)


Continental depositional environments preserve the majority of the macrofloral record since the advent of land-plant colonization in the mid-Paleozoic, and wetland representatives are encountered more commonly than those that grew under more seasonal conditions. It has been assumed that preservation potential and future recovery of plant debris are high once detritus is introduced into any appropriate environment of deposition (e.g., fluvial-lacustrine or paludal setting), regardless of prevailing associated climate, sediment load, or geochemistry at the time of emplacement or interval thereafter. If a plant fossil is identified in any part of a stratigraphic interval, even if it occurs solely as an impression, it has been presumed that favorable conditions persisted over time to facilitate this record. Conversely, the absence of fossil plants in a stratigraphic sequence commonly has been interpreted as the result of catastrophic perturbation across the landscape, rather than the ascribing their absence to taphonomic filters that may have operated millennia after burial. Terrestrial landscapes are affected by aggradational, equilibrium, and degradational processes that control not only the local or regional water table, but also the long-term fossilization potential of organic debris entombed within these sediments. Fossil plants have the highest preservation potential when high water tables are maintained long-term within soils (e.g., histosols, entisols, gleyed soils), or in settings that are maintained below the maximum draw down of the regional water table (e.g., channel barforms, abandoned channels, lakes) of aggradational landscapes. When landscapes reach equilibrium, extensive pedogenesis ensues and the development of deep mature soils (e.g., calcisols) results in the bacterial degradation of any previously buried plant debris due to extreme penetration of atmospheric gases. When sediment is removed during landscape degradation, the local and/or regional water table is reset lower in the unconsolidated stratigraphy, once again promoting rapid decay of previously buried detritus at depth. These processes, operating under time frames of centuries to millennia and longer (lakh), control the ultimate preservational mode of plants recovered from the fossil record.

This chapter reviews the factors influencing the preservation of terrestrial plants in both subaqueous and subaerial environments based on actualistic studies, and develops a conceptual framework for landscape evolution in continental regimes. A model is presented in which preservational mode is related to the taphonomic and sedimentary history of the landscape in which plant detritus is buried. Case studies of the plant-fossil record, ranging from the Triassic to the Eocene, in exclusively aggradational and in aggradational/degradational landscapes are presented.


Carbonaceous Shale Coarse Woody Debris Late Eocene Plant Assemblage Fossil Plant 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



Support for RAG includes: a Forschungspreis from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for studies in the Weißelster basin, Germany; NSF EAR 0417317 and a Mellon Foundation grant to Colby, Bates, and Bowdoin Colleges for research efforts in the Karoo Basin, South Africa; and NSF EAR, ACS PRF, NATO, and other agencies for plant-taphonomic investigations in the southeastern U.S., Kalimantan, Indonesia, Sarawak, Malaysia, and central Europe. Support for TMD includes: NSF EAR 9305087, USGS-NPS Interagency Agreement 1443-IA-1200-94-003, Chevron, Colorado State University, and the University of Minnesota Duluth.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeologyColby CollegeWatervilleUSA
  2. 2.Department of Geological SciencesUniversity of Minnesota DuluthDuluthUSA
  3. 3.ExxonMobil Exploration CompanyHoustonUSA

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