Paleocene Palm Predates Prairies

(Trevor Poole / The Quill)

If you’re frozen from the Manitoba winter and yearning for a warm break surrounded by luscious palms, you need only travel as far as Alberta – and 65 million years backward. Brandon University’s own Dr. Greenwood and his graduate student, Christopher West, inadvertently expanded scientific understanding of climate and ecology in prehistoric Canada with their discovery of an entirely new species of palm from a fossil in central Alberta. While perusing the fossil plant collections at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alta., Dr. Greenwood was drawn to the specimen by its unusual size. He notes, “[The] palm leaves are… about the size of an average person’s hand, smaller than the leaf of almost any palm currently living or extinct”. Dr. Greenwood postulates that the size is likely indicative of the plant growing at its cold northern limit.

The finding requires researchers to expand the previously thought range and evolutionary speed of palm plants, information that is used to indicate past climate change. Dr. Dennis Braman, Research Scientist in Palynology at the Royal Tyrell Museum, says “we realized that it constrained our climate interpretations for the Paleocene and that it was the first palm fossil known from this part of Alberta”. The palm is evidence of the plant type growing much further north than previously thought, prior to this the most northerly palm in North America was found in southern Montana. The palm fossil record in North America spans New Mexico to Alaska but Paleocene palm fossils were always missing in Canada; “this research helps to fill in some of the gaps in the palm fossil record” says student Christopher West.

But don’t make your time travel plans without noting that this Paleocene plant doesn’t mean that ancient Canada was a tropical paradise, but was more like present-day San Francisco – warm and wet, with the palm preferring a temperate deciduous forest. Not only does this new species inspire the reevaluation of climate interpretations for Paleocene Alberta but also indicates that this type of palm was thriving 20 million years earlier than predicted. The palm fossils were found in rocks deposited 65 million years ago – just after the extinction of dinosaurs. The 65-million-year old newbie was named Sabalites geneseensis, after the Genesee fossil site where it was found, south of the North Saskatchewan River in Alberta.

Republished from The Quill print edition, Volume 107, Issue 19, January 24, 2017.