Selective decay resistance of soft
tissue in early land plants (4)
As shown before, the "hollow straw" phenomenon often observed with
early land plants fossilized in the Rhynie chert requires a
more complex explanation than the one proposed in [1,2]. (See
Chert News 60,
It cannot be reduced to a silicification front moving into
plant for a short distance only while the larger part of the tissue is
left to decay. Such front would preserve the epidermis first but there
is ample evidence that the epidermis is less well or not at all
preserved in plant parts with hollow straw aspect than in others.
detail supports the idea that the hollow straw aspect had not been
brought about by non-biological processes like diffusion and
silicification but had been purposeful prepared by the living plant: It
is the presence of gaps or chambers in the wall of the straw. There
must be quite a number of them in some straws, judging from 5 of them
seen on the cross-section in Fig.1 on the right. Note the well
preserved seam of cortex tissue making up the wall,
which contrasts with the degraded epidermis and
the decayed cortex tissue within.
preserved as hollow straws with enigmatic gaps or chambers in the wall.
Widths of the pictures 6.9mm (right), 2.8mm (left).
Fig.3: Detail of Fig.1: Empty chamber in the wall of the
straw connected to a gap in the epidermis. Width
of the picture 1.7mm.
the cells in the wall of the straw are filled with bluish pale
chalzedony but the dark cell walls make the straw wall appear
dark. The straw in Figs.1-3 is darker than usual because the chalzedony
inside the cells is partially clear so that one looks into the dark
interior. One should be careful not to mistake the dark aspect for a
black fill. Specimens like this one can be
particularly misleading since there
are really black fills in plant cells in other samples of Rhynie chert.
An erronous interpretation is suggested by a few cells in Fig.3 with a
horizontal boundary indicating a deposit within the cell. At first
sight it may look like a dark deposit with whitish chalcedony above but
it is not. It appears that Figs.1-3 are shown here upside down, hence
what had gone on in these cells was silica clusters forming in the
water and settling into a suspension at the bottom which finally turned
into whitish chalcedony while the water above turned into transparent
A quite unrelated observation is worth
mentioning here, although it does not contribute to understanding: None
of the various cracks in Figs.1,3 had been deflected along the surface
of the plant where the waxy cuticle on the epidermis usually precludes
thorough silicification, thus providing an easy
way for crack propagation. It must be concluded that, for reasons
unknown, there had been no easy crack path.
enigmatic chambers in the wall of the straws deserve closer
consideration. There are samples where none of the hollow straws has got
chambers of this size. Conspicuous chambers are never seen on sections
of plants with well-preserved tissue, as in Rhynie
Chert News 2,
Sub-stomatal chambers are so small that they are usually not seen on
sections. Nevertheless they could possibly be the sites where the large
chambers formed later, for whichever reason.
A few more of the large chambers are shown in Rhynie
Chert News 97
and in the pictures below.
Fig.4 (left): Aglaophyton hollow
straw, chamber in the wall with access
hole in the epidermis and special arrangement of cells .
Fig.5 (right): Aglaophyton
cross-sections, sporangium wall (left) and hollow straw with chamber in
the wall, bulging out at the bottom (right).
Note also the remains of the destroyed epidermis.
Fig.6 (below left): Aglaophyton
hollow straw, epidermis decayed, apparent gap in the dark wall
filled with faintly seen cells, see drawing Fig.7.
(The cuticle seen as a dark line must have been shifted since
the vanished epidermis had been
much thinner than the spacing seen here.)
Width of Figs.4,5,6: 1.4mm, 1.7mm, 1.4mm. Equal scale for Figs.3-6.
A clue to an explanation of the empty chambers or gaps
occasionally present in the wall of hollow
straws may be hidden in Fig.6. It
shows a rare case of
an apparent gap in the dark wall filled with faintly seen cells (Fig.7)
have not got the black stain usually present on the cell walls of the
hollow straw. The faintly seen cells fit so neatly to the other ones
that an explanation as newly grown cells filling a hole gnawn by a
creature can be excluded. Hence, the faint cells must have been there
the time, and when the living plant prepared a few circumferential
layers of cells by unknown means to become rot resistant in order to
form a persistent tube, apparently several clusters of cells did not
that rot resistance and thus were left to decay or dissolved by
themselves, thus leaving holes in the straw. The plant must have done
purpose but it is not known to which purpose.
from Figs.1-4, the epidermis seems to be
involved, which only makes the problem more confusing.
Detail of Fig.6 possibly leading the way to a partial explanation of
the intriguing phenomenon of gaps or holes only in those specimens
which appear as hollow
straws. Width of the drawing 0.4mm.
This drawing ...
... obviously contradicts the assumption in
[1,2] that the
hollow straw aspect is brought about by silicification,
... shows that a couple of cells is conspicuously
spared from getting a thick dark coating,
... suggests that the occasional absence of the
dark coating is not incidental but had been controlled by
with other gaps in the wall of the straw seems to indicate that the
cells without coating had been destined to decay or even to dissolve by
themselves so that an empty chamber is left whose purpose is by no
The phenomenon of cell walls vanishing in a controlled way for a
particular purpose is not quite exotic among plants. Euphorbias, for
example, make long tubes for poisonous liquid in this way. The same can
be suspected of Nothia,
also from the Rhynie chert. (See Rhynie
Chert News 57.)
addition to the open questions already mentioned, the formation of
chambers, gaps, or holes in the wall is all the more peculiar since the
plant would grow a dome-shaped cover
over a hole eaten into the wall so that it would become closed, as seen
Chert News 60.
Incidentally, the latter
phenomenon serves as a
proof that the hollow straw aspect is not an attribute of the dead
plant subject to partial silicification but had been there in the live
plant. Obviously Aglaophyton
able to live as a hollow straw with the central strand still functional
but the cortex in between dead and more or less decayed.
C.L. Powell, N.H. Trewin, D. Edwards: Palaeoecology and
plant succession in a borehole through the Rhynie cherts, ...
Geological Society, London,
Special Publications 180 (2000), 439-457.
 www.abdn.ac.uk/rhynie, Chapter Taphonomy.