Photo by Andreea Ch

The Appalachian coalfields once overflowed with diverse flora and fauna during the Carboniferous Period.

Thomas Mcloughlin is a geologist and author of several books based on his knowledge of Paleobotany. One of his books, “A Guide to Pennsylvanian (Carboniferous) Age Plant Fossils of Southwest Virginia” is a non-fiction book that introduces readers to the Appalachian region as one of Earth’s most biodiverse ecosystems. The Appalachian coalfields were once home to various flora and fauna in diverse habitats created by humid-temperate climates. This book showcases plant fossils from the central Appalachian coalfields, a gallery of fossil plants, and a few fossils of marine organisms. The book provides more than 280 illustrations and 57 plates, most of which are in color. The fossils are sorted by groups and located as to the coal seam horizon and geographic location. 

In June 1980, Thomas Mcloughlin joined the U.S. Department of Labor and Mine Safety and Health Administration. For twenty-eight years, he collected plant fossils in the coal mines and outcrops in southwestern Virginia parts of Kentucky and West Virginia. Mcloughlin had spent more than 27 years in and around the bituminous coal mines in southwest Virginia, part of the Appalachian region.

Fossils and Paleobotany 

Fossils are the preserved remnants of plants and animals or bodies buried in sediments like mud, seas, lakes, and rivers. Fossils include preserved traces of life such as bones, shells, and teeth. Plant fossils, on the other hand, are uncommon since the tissues of leaves are typically disintegrated before fossilization can occur. Only when the conditions are ideal can leaves be preserved? 

Paleobotany studies ancient plants based on plant fossils found in sedimentary rocks. These fossils can be impressions or compressions of the plants left on the rock’s surface or “petrified” objects, such as wood, which preserve the original plant material in rocklike form.

Fossils are essential to the history of life on Earth as it teaches humans the origin of the Earth’s species and the environmental changes over geological time. Fossils prove the evolution and adaptation of plants and animals to different environments.

The Carboniferous Period

During the late Paleozoic Era, the Carboniferous period persisted from 299 to 360 million years ago. The name “Carboniferous” came from the large amounts of carbon-bearing coal formed during the period. These coal deposits occur throughout northern Europe, Asia, and Midwestern and eastern North America. The term “Carboniferous” is used worldwide to describe this period. In the United States, this period was separated into two subsystems. One is the Mississippian or the early Carboniferous, and the Pennsylvanian or the late Carboniferous. 

The subsystems were demonstrated to differentiate the carboniferous layers of the Pennsylvanian from the Mississippian limestone. The subsystems are the result of the different stratigraphy on the different continents. The Mississippian and Pennsylvanian are subdivided into several internationally recognized stages based on the evolutionary successions of fossil groups. 

Plants during the Carboniferous Period

Paleobotany records the discovered plants during the Carboniferous period. These plants developed in this period’s warm, humid climate and swampy conditions. Large trees covered with bark and giant ferns grew in the middle Carboniferous swamps. The plants gave off so much oxygen that the air had much more oxygen. This allowed plants and animals to reach sizes unknown in today’s atmosphere. When the giant trees and ferns perished, these plants fell into a body of water that did not have bacteria to help them decompose. These plants formed peat beds. Eventually, with the weight of layers and layers, these peat beds turned to coal. 

The growth of the forests during the Carboniferous period removed vast quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which led to an abundance of oxygen. Levels of oxygen in the atmosphere increased by around 35 percent compared to the 21 percent of oxygen level today.