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Adaptation, plant evolution, and the fossil recordThe importance of adaptation in determining patterns of evolution has become an important focus of debate in evolutionary biology. As it pertains to paleobotany, the issue is whether or not adaptive evolution mediated by natural selection is sufficient to explain the stratigraphic distributions of taxa and character states observed in the plant fossil record. One means of addressing this question is the functional evaluation of stratigraphic series of plant organs set in the context of paleoenvironmental change and temporal patterns of floral composition within environments. For certain organ systems, quantitative estimates of biophysical performance can be made on the basis of structures preserved in the fossil record. Performance estimates for plants separated in time or space can be compared directly. Implicit in different hypotheses of the forces that shape the evolutionary record (e.g. adaptation, mass extinction, rapid environmental change, chance) are predictions about stratigraphic and paleoenvironmental trends in the efficacy of functional performance. Existing data suggest that following the evolution of a significant structural innovation, adaptation for improved functional performance can be a major determinant of evolutionary changes in plants; however, there are structural and development limits to functional improvement, and once these are reached, the structure in question may no longer figure strongly in selection until and unless a new innovation evolves. The Silurian-Devonian paleobotanical record is consistent with the hypothesis that the succession of lowland floodplain dominants preserved in the fossil record of this interval was determined principally by the repeated evolution of new taxa that rose to ecological importance because of competitive advantages conferred by improved biophysical performance. This does not seem to be equally true for Carboniferous-Jurassic dominants of swamp and lowland floodplain environments. In these cases, environmental disruption appears to have been a major factor in shaping the fossil record. This does not mean that continuing adaptation was not important during this interval, but it may indicate that adaptive evolution was strongest in environments other than those best represented in the paleobotanical record.
Document ID
Document Type
Reprint (Version printed in journal)
Knoll, A. H.
(Botanical Museum, Harvard University Cambridge, MA 02138, United States)
Niklas, K. J.
Date Acquired
August 21, 2013
Publication Date
January 1, 1987
Publication Information
Publication: Review of palaeobotany and palynology
Volume: 50
ISSN: 0034-6667
Subject Category
Distribution Limits
NASA Discipline Exobiology
Non-NASA Center
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