On the taxonomic resolution of pollen and spore records of Earth’s vegetation

Mander, Luke and Punyasena, Surangi W. (2014). On the taxonomic resolution of pollen and spore records of Earth’s vegetation. International Journal of Plant Sciences, 175(8) pp. 931–945.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/677680


Premise of research. Pollen and spores (sporomorphs) are a valuable record of plant life and have provided information on subjects ranging from the nature and timing of evolutionary events to the relationship between vegetation and climate. However, sporomorphs can be morphologically similar at the species, genus, or family level. Studies of extinct plant groups in pre-Quaternary time often include dispersed sporomorph taxa whose parent plant is known only to the class level. Consequently, sporomorph records of vegetation suffer from limited taxonomic resolution and typically record information about plant life at a taxonomic rank above species.
Methodology. In this article, we review the causes of low taxonomic resolution, highlight examples where this has hampered the study of vegetation, and discuss the strategies researchers have developed to overcome the low taxonomic resolution of the sporomorph record. Based on this review, we offer our views on how greater taxonomic precision might be attained in future work.
Pivotal results. Low taxonomic resolution results from a combination of several factors, including inadequate reference collections, the absence of sporomorphs in situ in fossilized reproductive structures, and damage following fossilization. A primary cause is the difficulty of accurately describing the very small morphological differences between species using descriptive terminology, which results in palynologists classifying sporomorphs conservatively at the genus or family level to ensure that classifications are reproducible between samples and between researchers.
Conclusions. In our view, the most promising approach to the problem of low taxonomic resolution is a combination of high-resolution imaging and computational image analysis. In particular, we encourage palynologists to explore the utility of microscopy techniques that aim to recover morphological information from below the diffraction limit of light and to employ computational image analyses to consistently quantify small morphological differences between species.

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