I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Ian Glasspool the last year or so to image the Fossil Ferns collection. I have learned an enormous amount about Paleobotanical collections, managing, and organization through Ian. And while it isn’t the easiest topic to try to learn about, Ian sure has made it much more palatable for a non scientist such as myself. His passion for the collection definitely translates as he often goes on curious tangents about all the quirks of the Paleobotanical collection. One of the most unique things about Paleobotanical collections is that it is organized by stratigraphy, not taxonomy. And only because you may get a slab of rock that contains a bunch of potential species and you can’t possibly separate everything. So you know everything is of the same location and time period but taxonomy would cause more problems for a collection manager. And as we lay to rest the imaging part of the project, it pains me to say that Ian is departing from the museum. I will truly miss his presence in the museum and because he is leaving, he had no time at all to get a formal portrait in my office with the object. I had to get his portrait while I had the chance to in the short meeting with him about concluding the project. But without hesitation, he knew exactly what his favorite object in the whole museum was.
The specimen I’m holding is part of the holotype of Prototaxites southworthii collected from Late Devonian sediments at Kettle Point, Ontario. The genus was first erected by Dawson in 1859 and includes specimens that can measure in excess of 20 feet in length: at the time of its growth it was by far the largest-known organism on land. However, since it was named Prototaxites has been the subject of heated debate. Dawson considered it to represent rotted conifer wood. However, this idea was ridiculed by Carruthers (1872) who considered it to be an alga. It has subsequently been described as a fungus, a lichen and most recently a rolled up mat of liverworts. While consensus doesn’t exist it is most widely considered to represent a basiodiomycete fungus. This specimen is anatomically preserved and thin sections of it reveal interwoven tubes when viewed microscopically. These tubes are often visible in examples of this fossil preserved as charcoal and such fossils form some of the earliest evidence for wildfire on the planet.
One thing that Ian doesn’t say above is how he is drawn to the enigmatic. How the specimen may not be the prettiest, but the mystery of what it could possibly be is the appeal to him. There is a lot of mystery stuff in the Paleobotany collection. I can see how this it the perfect field of science for Ian.