February 05, 2010

Studying paleobotany in Patagonia

Grass is something we all take for granted; it covers 1/3 of the Earth’s land surface, and provides many different sources of food for humans and other animals as well. But when did grasses first appear on the planet? How do they respond to varying climates? And, who/what ate them? These are just a few of the questions that Caroline Strömberg, Curator of Paleobotany at the Burke, seeks to answer when she travels to Patagonia, Argentina this month.

Why Patagonia? Paleontologists believe open grasslands first appeared in South America 30-million years ago, long before they emerged on other continents, based on evidence of large, herbivorous mammals called “meridiungulates” that appear in the fossil record at that time. These mammals had long legs and high-crowned teeth that seem specialized for grass-eating.

The research conducted by Caroline and her colleagues Matt Kohn (Boise State University), Rick Madden (Duke University), and Alfredo Carlini (Museo de La Plata, Argentina) can help answer other important questions that are currently affecting the world today. By analyzing the relationship between meridiungulates and vegetation, the gaps filled in the fossil record through the Patagonia research can help us better understand why, and how, both vegetation and animals respond to climate change.

So good luck, Caroline! We look forward to your return and learning more from your findings!

Posted By: Andrea Barber, Communications