Roots holding on to soil
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Roots create … rock

The more I learn about roots, the more amazing they appear. Not only do they provide essential support for, and anchorage of, the aerial, above-ground, parts of the plant, they are the prime organs for abstracting water and a wide range of chemicals from the soil and transporting those throughout the plant. Furthermore, their ancient and profound association with fungi as mycorrhiza makes one of the most marvellous beneficial mutualisms on the planet. Not only are these root-fungal associations important to continued plant productivity, but they’ve also been implicated as a major driving force in the present-day success and diversity of land plants. And, roots also help to stabilise soil, preventing its widespread loss by erosion, or its being swept away by floods today, in much the same away that roots and root-like subterranean structures did in geologically-distant times. Now there’s another geological dimension to add to the growing catalogue of root achievements.

Roots holding on to soil
Image: Wing-Chi Poon / Wikipedia

William McMahon and Neil Davies examined stratigraphic data from all of the Earth’s known alluvial [materials left behind on land which has been flooded or where a river once flowed] formations – from 3.5 billion years ago (during the Archean eon) to the Carboniferous Period (approx. 300 million years ago). This veritable deluge of data led to their conclusion that the increase in the proportion of mud retained on land is coeval [“of the same age”] with the evolution of vegetation. In the absence of any factor restraining their movement, these alluvial deposits – of mud, silt and clay – would normally be washed off the land into the sea. Rocks formed at those terrestrial sites, at those times, would therefore have less of those materials in them.

However, from about 460 millions of years ago, something changed and more of this material was retained on land, as evidenced by the increased proportion of alluvial materials contained in such land-formed rocks. That ‘something’ is inferred to be the increasing vegetation cover of the land by plants whose root-like structures, and roots proper, act as filters to retain more of those alluvial materials on land. This is yet another intriguing example of the transformative, terra-forming power of plants, especially the landscaping activities of their roots*.

This present study extends previous work by Neil Davies and Martin Gibling, which made a connection between presence of terrestrial vegetation and enhanced alluvial deposits on land between the Cambrian and Devonian Periods (541 – 359 millions of years ago), by demonstrating that geological periods much earlier than that where terrestrial alluvial deposits were virtually non-existent were also effectively devoid of land plants, thereby emphasizing the vegetation-alluvial connection. And is another example of what’s been described as ‘evolutionary geomorphology’. It’s also a lesson from history of the ability of plants to reduce erosion of land.

Sadly, it’s yet another of those lessons we humans don’t appear to have heeded as we are surprised to note that removal of land-occupying trees – the phenomenon of deforestation – has ecological consequences, not least of which is deposition of silt into streams and waterways (Cecilia Gontijo Leal). Where are those roots when you need them..? Or, Roots, providing the bedrock upon which the Earth’s green mantle is constructed? Discuss…

* For an awesome graphic that graphically demonstrates this phenomenon, see the commentary on the McMahon and Davies paper by Woodward Fisher.

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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