Caroline Strömberg Gets Charles Schuchert Award

Burke Museum Curator of Paleobotany and UW professor Caroline Strömberg has received the 2017 Charles Schuchert Award from the Paleontological Society in recognition of her ground-breaking work on fossil phytoliths as a way to understand ancient plants and environments, and in particular grasses and the animals that feed on them. Phytoliths are tiny silica bodies that form in the tissues of some plants. Because phytoliths are made of mineral, they are preserved in soils when plants die and decompose, and thus may leave no other fossil traces. The microscopic shapes of phytoliths are distinctive to particular plant groups, sometimes down to the species level. However, the role they play in plants is not completely understood. Phytoliths make grasses gritty for animals to chew–according to traditional thinking, leading to the evolution of high-crowned (hypsodont) teeth that grow as they are worn away, as in horses and other grazing animals.

One line of Strömberg’s research looked at the connections between the fossil record of phytoliths and the evolution of hypsodont teeth in mammal herbivores.  Among the discoveries was that some Eocene groups of plant-eaters in southern South America evolved tall-crowned hypsodont teeth long before grasslands became widespread, likely because of active volcanoes in the region that deposited gritty ash particles on forest plants. Thus the high-crowned teeth in such browsing herbivores were not evidence of arid grasslands somehow appearing at such an early time. Dr. Strömberg has been an NPA speaker in years past.

More on her research:

Papers available online:

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