As part of the Wild Art 2021 August Challenge, put on by Zoe Keller, I illustrated two pieces focusing on the theme, “PREHISTORIC”. Each month, I am going to focus on two pieces – one highlighting flora, the other highlighting fauna. This month, I focused on two species, one commonly found along beaches and the other commonly found in wooded areas – both of which are considered to be “living fossils”.
So what is a living fossil? These are creatures that are considered to be relatively unchanged from their ancestors in a previous geological era. For example, the Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is a species of tree that we may see commonly growing in spacious areas of full sun, with beautiful yellow fall foliage and some absolutely terribly smelling fruits, that was also around at the same time as the Cretaceous period (Mesozoic Era) dinosaurs, which include the T-Rex!
One reason why these species are around still unchanged from their ancestors is because they had no evolutionary advantage to changing and adapting over time! As other animals and plants had to adapt and change in order to keep up with various changes in atmosphere composition, soil and rock layer composition, water quality, and to keep up with the changes in the animals and plants around it (co-evolution), these living fossils were able to withstand these environmental changes without changing themselves! This form of extremely slow evolutionary rate is called Bradytelic Evolution. Most living things were not able to sustain life in new conditions and had to adapt, and often, these adaptations happened so drastically and in various ways so new species developed over time. These species, who changed at a normal (or average) rate are Horotelic.
Other Living Fossils include the Horseshoe Crab and the Cinnamon Fern, as shown here in my illustrations.
The Horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus), much like the Ginkgo, was around at the time of the dinosaurs, however the Horseshoe crab spent most of it’s prehistoric time in the Paleozoic Era, which marked the mass extinction of many animals. What is so surprising, and really is a testament to the strength and sturdiness of the Horseshoe Crab is that 90%+ of marine species (which the horseshoe crab is), went extinct during this time. Then, during the extinction of the Dinosaurs during the Mesozoic Era, the horseshoe crabs remain! And even today, during this time of climate change, horseshoe crabs remain. The biggest threat to their survival is actually overexploitation by humans. These incredible species are harvested to be used in the biomedical industry, since their blood can be used as a tool for quantifying endotoxin bacteria (such as E. coli) in the body or on objects that are put in the body (pace makers, vaccines, artificial knees, etc…). While this may be a noble cause, they are also losing habitat as well due to over development and sea level rise, and now, after millions and millions of years, are considered Critically Threatened and almost Endangered. Fortunately, many states where Horseshoe Crabs reside, there are now laws that protect these ancient animals – a good thing indeed to protect animals that are older than the human race!
The Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) is considered a living fossil as fossil records indicate that it was around as well perhaps 75 million – 180 million years ago! Ferns in general are incredibly ancient plants, having been some of the earliest plant species around; in fact many tree ferns have been dated back to the Triassic period! More recently (yet still ancient history to us!), the genus that the Cinnamon Fern belongs to was recognized in Norse Mythology! In fact, the Latin name references this myth. Osmandar, the Saxon name of the Norse god Thor, needed to hide in a cluster of these tall ferns to protect family. To this day, these ferns can be rather tall and the non-fertile (green) fronds form a large cluster around the fertile (cinnamon colored) fronds, which would definitely provide a hiding space for something!
Ferns are vascular plants, much like the trees and flowers that we think of growing in forests and meadows today, however they lack seeds and instead are similar to fungi in the fact that they have spores instead. In the Cinnamon Fern, the fertile frond is covered in the spores while the sterile fronds do not grow spores on the underside of their foliage as other ferns do.
As a child growing up in the mountains of the Northeast, I remember playing among these ferns in the woods and could even use the fertile fronds to pretend sword-play with my brother. Are there any of these living fossils that you interact with and love having around in this modern day? Let me know in the comments!
Stay tuned next month to learn more about various flight mechanics of animals and plants, and the difference between gliding and flying with the “Flight” theme!
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