The Evolution of Plants

To mark Plant Appreciation Day today, Lauren Baker and Chris Thorogood of the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum take us on a quick tour of the evolution of plants: from primitive water-dwelling algae to the colonisation of land, and the eventual success of angiosperms – the flowering plants.

The Earth formed around 4.6 billion years ago, and around 2.7 billion years ago the very first plants evolved. These were the algae, a diverse group that live mainly in water. The ancestor of all modern algae – and the first organisms to photosynthesise – were cyanobacteria. Green algae evolved from these cyanobacteria and are the ancestors to all modern plants.

We owe the air we breathe to plants. With the production of oxygen through photosynthesis came a drastic climatic shift around 2.4-2.0 billion years ago. Known as the Great Oxygenation Event, it dramatically increased oxygen and decreased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Non-flowering plants

Jump ahead 1.5 billion years and the evolution of plants really takes off. To leave the water, plants needed to develop protection from drying out. The group that colonised the land is called the bryophytes, and includes the liverworts, hornworts and mosses.

Bryophytes are simple plants that lack true roots or ‘plumbing’ vascular tissue such as xylem or phloem. Bryophytes may have evolved from green algae in shallow, fresh water and developed the ability to survive on land when these pools dried out: 470 million years on, you can still see many bryophytes growing in damp habitats today.

A living bryophyte: Marchantia species growing in the Carnivorous House at Oxford Botanic Garden

The first vascular plants appear around 430 million years ago. One of the earliest examples was Cooksonia, consisting of a simple branching stalk without leaves.

Lycophytes, which evolved around 350 million years ago, also have vascular systems that enable water and nutrients to be moved around the plant. This drove the evolution of more complex, multicellular plants.

The ability to pump water allowed lycophytes to grow to heights of 45 m and they formed vast forests. Their remains also make up the coal, oil, and natural gas we use for energy today. More than 1,200 species of lycophytes exist now, grouped into three orders: the club mosses, quillworts and spike mosses.

A ‘living fossil’ that can be seen growing at the Botanic Garden is Equisetum, commonly called the horsetail. Horsetails evolved around 350 million and although the species alive today are herbaceous, extinct horsetails such as Calamites once formed large trees. The fossilised remains of Calamites in the collections of the Museum show the vascular tissues that would have carried water and nutrients up the vast trunk of the tree.

​Cycads also evolved around the same time as the lycophytes and horsetails. They could easily be confused with palms, but unlike palms they are not flowering plants. Cycads belong to a group of plants called the gymnosperms, a name that literally means ‘naked seed’, and refers to the plants’ reproduction with seeds that are not encased in an ovary. Cycads can survive for over 1,000 years and are very slow growing. Today, the majority of the 200 surviving species are threatened with extinction.

​Another ancient and unusual group of gymnosperms that evolved alongside cycads and lycophytes are Gnetophytes, which include plants such as Ephedra, Welwitschia, and Gnetum. There are about 40 living species of Gnetum, and they are tropical evergreen trees, shrubs and lianas. Before DNA sequencing technology, they were believed to be the closest living relatives of flowering plants due to the sugary sap they produce to attract pollinating insects, like the nectar produced by flowers.

Fossils of Ephedra date back as long as 120 million years ago. They are pollinated by both wind and insects, and are found across all continents except for Australia. With small, scale-like leaves they are highly adapted to arid environments, growing in sandy soils with direct sun exposure.

But perhaps the most familiar gymnosperms are the conifers. Conifers include the world’s oldest tree, the bristlecone pine, and the world’s largest tree, the giant Sequoia. There are over 615 species of conifers, most belonging to the pine family, Pinaceae.

Flowering plants​

The evolution of flowering plants – the angiosperms – 125 million years ago, was the start of a global botanical competition with gymnosperms, and it changed the appearance of our planet forever. The fossil record shows the earliest flowering plants bloomed alongside the dinosaurs, and probably looked something like a magnolia.

Magnolia stellata blooming at Oxford Botanic Garden

Unlike the gymnosperms, the angiosperms reproduce with flowers and their seeds are contained within protective ovaries. Despite their relatively late emergence, the diversity of flowering plant species was accelerated by their evolution alongside insect pollinators. Today, of the roughly 350,000 known plant species, 325,000 are flowering plants.

The astounding story of the fake butterfly specimen Papilio ecclipsis – would you be fooled?

For April Fool’s Day, our Senior Collections Manager Darren Mann recounts the story of an elegantly fake butterfly – Papilio ecclipsis – asking whether it was a piece of scientific fraudulence or practical joke that went awry.

James Petiver, a 17th-century London apothecary, was renowned for having one of the largest natural history collections in the world. Petiver (1665-1718) published some of the first books on British insects and created common names for some of our butterflies.

Volume 3, Plate II of Jones Icones – the two lower images are of Papilio ecclipsis

On plate 10 of his Gazophylacium naturae et artis — an illustrated catalogue of British insects (1702) he figured a unique butterfly that “exactly resembles our English Brimstone Butterfly were it not for those black Spots, and apparent blue Moons in the lower wings”. It was given to him by his late friend and butterfly collector William Charlton (1642-1702). This butterfly was later named Papilio ecclipsis by the father of taxonomy himself, Carl Linnaeus, in his 1763 work Centuria Insectorum Rariorum, and it became known as the Charlton Brimstone or the blue-eyed brimstone.

Petiver’s collection was purchased by Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), who later donated his entire ‘cabinet of curiosity’ to the nation, becoming the foundation for the Natural History Museum, London, originally part of the British Museum. It was here that wine merchant and naturalist William Jones (1745-1818) examined and later figured Petiver’s specimen in his Icones, an unpublished masterpiece of some 1,500 watercolour images of butterflies.

Jones’ Icones, held in the Museum’s archive, is the subject of numerous articles and is still examined by butterfly specialists the world over. Many of the specimens figured by Jones are no longer in existence, being ravished by pests or lost over time, so all that remains of these butterflies are the painted images within.

A drawer of British butterflies from the cabinet of William Jones. The Common Brimstone butterfly is the fourth from the right on the top row

When visiting London, Danish entomologist Johann Christian Fabricius (1745-1808) studied the paintings that Jones made and described over 200 species of butterfly new to science. Fabricius also visited the British Museum where he examined Petiver’s specimen of ecclipsis. In Entomologia systematica (1793) Fabricius revealed the enigmatic ecclipsis to be no more than a painted and “artificially spotted” specimen of the Common Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni). So, the dark spots and blue eyes were merely artistic licence, but whose?

Iconotypes, published by Thames & Hudson, will be available from October 2021

Petiver’s specimen, seen by both Jones and Fabricus in the British Museum in the late 18th century, had mysteriously disappeared by the following century. It is said that when Dr. Gray (1748-1806), Keeper of National Curiosities at the Museum, heard of the deception he became so enraged that he “indignantly stamped the specimen to pieces.”

It is still unclear whether this was an example of scientific fraud by Charlton, or if it was intended as a practical joke that went awry.

There remain two specimens of ecclipsis in the collection of the Linnean Society. Although it is uncertain who created these, it is believed that these replicas were made by none other than our very own William Jones, as he was one of the few who had the artistic skills to undertake such work. The forthcoming publication of Iconotypes, showing Jones’ Icones in all its splendour, will hopefully demonstrate how he had both the knowledge and the skill to recreate these fascinating fakes.

Links and References
Salmon, M., Marren, P., Harley, B. (2001) The Aurelian legacy: British butterflies and their collectors. University of California Press.
The Linnean Society https://www.linnean.org/
Vane-Wright, R. I. (2010) William Jones of Chelsea (1745–1818), and the need for a digital online ‘Icones’. Antenna. 34(1), 16–21

Railway Geology part 2: Read all about it

By Nina Morgan – geologist, science writer and Honorary Associate of the Museum
Picture research by Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist

The expansion of the railways in the 19th century offered more than just faster travel times. The growing rail network opened up the potential for introducing the wonders of geology, scenery and history to the travelling public at large. It also made it possible for geologists working in the field to import the comforts of home. And it spawned a new form of popular science and travel writing – describing geology and scenery from the train.

The geologist John Phillips, then based in York but later first Keeper of the Museum, was among the first to recognise these advantages. In 1841 he was on assignment mapping with the fledgling geological survey in southwest Wales. He expected the project to last several months, so rented a house in Tenby and – missing his home life – asked his sister Anne, along with Mary, her maid, and Cholo, their dog, to travel from York to Tenby join him.

Letter from John Phillips to his sister Anne, 28 April, 1841 (OUMNH Archive)

It was a marathon journey. In a long letter to Anne written on 28 April 1841, he provided her with detailed instructions about how to achieve it. Although it is clear that Phillips had become very familiar with the train timetables, he was not so sure about the rules for travelling with dogs. Two days later he wrote again to Anne to say:   

“How you will bring poor Cholo I do not even conjecture. Perhaps they will let him be with you in the carriage…. Pray have a good courage  then all will go right.”

 John Phillips’s popular railway guidebook, 2nd edition, 1855 (OUMNH collection)

Phillips’s book, Railway Excursions from York, Leeds and Hull, first published in 1853, was a popular success. It went through several editions and was republished several times under various titles.  Along with references to geology, the book included much historical background about the buildings, sights to be seen, and advice on the top ‘tourist destinations’ and how to reach them.

Phillips’s book inspired other geologists to jump onto the platform, and as new lines opened, so new railway geology guidebooks began to appear. Notable examples include the Geology of the Hull and Barnsley Railway by Edward Maule Cole, which appeared in 1886; and Yorkshire from a Railway Carriage Window, included as Part 2 in the massive Geology of Yorkshire by Percy Fry Kendall, Emeritus Professor of Geology at Leeds University, and Herbert Wroot, Honorary secretary of the Yorkshire Geological Society, which was published in 1924.

 Illustrations from Geology from a Railway Window, part 2 of The Geology of Yorkshire by Percy Fry Kendall and Herbert B. Wroot, 1924 (OUMNH collection)

Network rail

As the railway network expanded throughout Britain, so did the number of authors keen to describe the geology of their part of the country from the windows of a train. In 1878, the Geologists’ Association organised an excursion to examine the geology exposed in railway cuttings along the Banbury and Cheltenham District Railway from Chipping Norton to Hook Norton. Participants were advised to take the train from Paddington to Chipping Norton, with luggage directed to The White Hart, Chipping Norton.

In 1886, Sir Edward Poulton, later Hope Professor of Zoology at the University of Oxford, published an account of The Geology of the Great Western Railway journey from Oxford to Reading. Then in 1945, the Oxford geologist W.J. Arkell published his classic paper, Geology and Prehistory from the train, Oxford to Paddington; and in 2005 Philip Powell, a former curator and now Honorary Associate at the Museum, paid tribute to Arkell’s methods of observation by adding a final chapter outlining the geology that can be seen when travelling on part of the Cotswold Line from Moreton in Marsh to Reading, to his 2005 book, The Geology of Oxfordshire.

Meanwhile, the geologist Eric Robinson, now retired from University College London, prepared numerous handouts for his students and amateur guides describing the geology that can be seen from trains leaving from various London stations.

Times past

Along the way all of the ‘railway geologists’ painted vivid pictures both of the geology and the countryside as they saw it, and their descriptions – especially those from the earlier publications – provide a valuable insight into landscapes and railway lines now lost.

“A railway tour is life in a hurry,” Phillips proclaimed in his pioneering railway book. He clearly enjoyed the rush, and so did the many other geological authors and lovers of the countryside who followed in his tracks. Even today, with a railway geology book in hand, those delays along the line can turn into a real pleasure – depending where you’re held up, of course!

Railway Geology Part 1: The flying steed

By Nina Morgan – geologist, science writer and Honorary Associate of the Museum
Picture research by Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist

The introduction and growth of the railway network in the first half of the 19th century not only revolutionised travel and transport of goods for many, but it also had a profound effect on the science of geology.  Not only did it make it easier for geologists to cover the ground quickly – but the railway cuttings for the new lines revealed rock outcrops that had never before been seen.

John Phillips as a young man

One of the first to take advantage of the new possibilities was John Phillips (1800–1874), the first Keeper of the Museum, and nephew of William Smith, often referred to as the Father of English Geology. Phillips was orphaned at the age of eight, along with his younger sister Anne, and their younger brother, Jenkin.

John was educated at Smith’s expense and learned about geology at his uncle’s knee. He was reunited with Anne in 1829.  Neither married and they lived together until her death, with Anne serving as John’s housekeeper, moral support, confidant and geological companion. John went on to become a skilled palaeontologist, field geologist and prolific author.  He also became a great train enthusiast.

Anne Phillips photographed in 1860
(© Royal Institution London)

On 23 July 1835, John wrote to Anne with this vivid description of his first train journey – travelling on a ‘flying steed of Iron,’ from Manchester to Liverpool on his way to Dublin.

“…My dear Annie, You must certainly come to feel the strange impression of this flying Steed of Iron. It does so hurry & flurry on, you shake & sleep & start & wonder at the gliding Houses, trees & Churches, — the trains which meet & pass you’ like the swiftest birds with a rushing sound & the Master power (Steam) & a confused picture of colours & forms not at all distinct as Men[,] Women, Carriages &c that it is all like magic & can not be understood by a mere description. Then you are dragged through a tunnel full of gas lamps, then laid hold of by ruffian porters & crammed into an Omnibus whether you will or no & whirled away the man who guides (only) knows whither. “

Phillips quickly became a convert to train travel. He was often travelling from his then base in York to earn money by giving lecture courses by subscription to members of the various newly formed Philosophical societies, so enjoyed the relative convenience and faster travel times railways offered – even though, as he wrote to Anne in March 1841, the trains were not always punctual. 

Black and white image of railway station  on postcard.
Liverpool and Manchester Railway commemorative postcard
(author’s collection)

“I found the Train of yesternight very good travelling till we entered on the Leeds & Manchester line at Normanton. Then began this singular amusement: to lose time so as to arrive in 4 hours from Leeds, the time really required being 2 1/2 hours.  We did this odd railway feat by stopping 5 minutes each at about 10 stations & using all possible precautions not to go too fast.  This is said to be on account of the recent embankments not allowing of rapid transit: but some of the trains are faster. We reached Manchester at 10:30, that is to say in 4 hours from York.”

Sound familiar?!

Scan of handwritten letter.
Letter from John Phillips to his sister Anne, 30 March 1841 (OUMNH Archive)

In the second part of Railway Geology, Nina will take a look at how the expansion of the railway network spawned a new form of popular science and travel writing.

Artwork by @CatherineRRye

Drawn to Nature

By Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

With lockdown and the long winter nights shuffling the nation’s emotions like a ham-fisted magician with a damp deck of cards, we have no doubt all suffered from a case of the winter blues at some point recently. While the Museum and its inspiring specimens have been closed to visitors we have tried out some new approaches to bring you the solace and creative inspiration that nature can provide.

events manager Laura is seen leaning over a lighting set-up that is shedding light on a table with specimens.
Events manager Laura hard at work on a lighting set-up for a Drawn to Nature live stream.

Drawn to Nature is a new series of online events designed to lift people’s spirits with a combined art and science activity. Originally planned as a wellbeing event to take place in the Museum, the online version was created in response to the last lockdown. We start each session with a short talk by a member of the Museum’s collections or research team, who share their passion for a selection of favourite specimens. The talk is followed by a chance for viewers to explore their creative sides by drawing the specimens, while learning more by about them through some Q&A.

It’s not an art lesson as such, but more a chance for people to find inspiration from some of the jewels of the natural world held in our collections. We hope it helps people to relax, find inspiration, immerse themselves in a creative activity, and learn a little natural history at the same time.

Click the gallery images to zoom and see credit information.

Our first session came from Life Collections manager Mark Carnall, who talked us through the natural history of Nautiloids, the fascinating shelled molluscs that are related to other cephalopods such as squid and octopus. Lit and arranged beautifully by our Events Manager Laura Ashby, their intricate chambered shells and 100 tentacles proved a challenging subject, but one that resulted in an array of wonderful artworks in a variety of styles and media shared on social media.

Following Mark’s talk, we explored some of the wonderful specimens from our entomology collections with our expert speaker Zoe Simmons, Head of Life Collections. Zoe picked out some of the most beautiful flies from our five million-plus insects. Using microscopes, specialist lighting, and careful placement, the specimens were a real hit and again followed by some inspired artworks posted online by attendees from across the world (‘best night of lockdown yet!’ enthused one attendee).

Click the gallery images to zoom and see credit information.

And there’s more to come. Tomorrow evening (Wednesday 10 March), Earth Collections Manager Dr Hilary Ketchum introduces the strange-looking carnivorous marine reptiles of the Jurassic – the plesiosaurs. We hope to bring you yet more of the inspirational well-being the natural world has to offer.

You can watch the Drawn to Nature streams online in the playlist on our YouTube channel:

To sign up for our next event, visit www.oumnh.ox.ac.uk/events

Top image: Artwork by @CatherineRRye

Image of the HMS Beagle

Darwin’s dockdown reading list

By Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archives and Library Assistant 

Yes, lockdown 3 is long but imagine being stuck on a boat for years on end with no TV, no internet and definitely no Netflix. Luckily, when Charles Darwin set sail on the HMS Beagle in 1831 he had access to a library of over 400 books on the ship. For Darwin Day, 12th February, we explored some of what Darwin read to help him pass the time…

Image of Young Darwin
Young Darwin by George Richmond, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As Darwin was following in the footsteps of earlier voyage naturalists, the Beagle library was well stocked with an excellent collection of books chronicling classic expeditions, such as James Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific Ocean (although this book is a later account of Cook’s voyages). Not only did reading about these earlier voyages inspire Darwin to undertake his own, but these accounts gave him insight into life at sea as well as fascinating details of some of the faraway places he was expecting to visit.

James Cook’s voyages

Many of the Beagle library books were beautifully illustrated with woodcuts or engravings of animals. Georges Cuvier’s, The animal kingdom arranged in conformity with its organization… (1827-35) had several volumes full of spectacular images covering mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, fossils, molluscs, crustaceans, arachnids and insects. While Darwin may not have had all 16 volumes with him on the Beagle, as some were published while his voyage was in progress, the numerous volumes Darwin did have access to would have provided a wealth of information and detailed illustrations to aid in species identification.

Using the vivid descriptions and chart in Patrick Syme’s Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1814) Darwin was able to identify the colours of the natural world and accurately record the colours of the plants and animals he encountered on his voyage. This beautiful pocket-sized taxonomic guide provided a uniform standard for colours that other naturalists would have understood and was an indispensable tool for Darwin in his scientific observations.

The most important book for Darwin was Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33). Darwin was gifted the first volume of the first edition by the Captain of the Beagle, Robert Fitzroy, as a welcoming present for joining the voyage. Darwin received the second and third volumes while in South America. In Principles, Lyell argued the earth is extremely old and the processes that changed the earth in the past are still at work today. Inspired by Lyell’s ‘uniformitarian’ proposal, this theory allowed for the longer time span Darwin believed necessary for evolution to occur.

Reading other books of exploration encouraged Darwin to chronicle his own voyage. His bestseller was published in 1839 as Darwin’s Journal of Researches. A revised 2nd edition was published in 1845 with a dedication to Charles Lyell and his “admirable Principles of Geology.”

To learn more about what Charles Darwin read on board the Beagle: http://darwin-online.org.uk/BeagleLibrary/Beagle_Library_Introduction.htm.