Common Fossil Plants of Western North America William D. Tidwell, 1998. ISBN 1-56098783-9 (cloth), 1-56098-758-8 (paper). Second edition, 299 pp. Smithsonian Institution Press, 470 L'Enfant Plaza, Suite 7100, Washington, D.C. 20560.- Bill Tidwell hits the nail on the head on the very first page of his book when explaining one of the driving forces behind paleobotanical fieldwork: "Collecting fossils is like opening Christmas packages. For a collector, the thrill of breaking or splitting a rock and finding fossilized remains of plants that have been extinct for millions of years is very rewarding."
Similarly, getting your hands on the second edition of "Common Fossil Plants of Western North America" is much like receiving an eagerly awaited Christmas gift. It is a handsome, well produced book packed with good information (both practical and scholarly) and filled with tantalizing illustrations and photos of potential fossil plants just waiting to be discovered.
The book begins, as paleobotanical usually books do, with the obligatory historical review of the study of fossil plants, a survey of plant life sensu lato, a geological time table, and a chapter on types of preservation and on methods used in collecting and curating plant fossil specimens.
Particularly useful in this introductory information is the index map to nearly 100 fossil plant localities on pp. 24-25. Each locality is neatly charted on an outline map of the states and provinces of the western U.S. and Canada and is listed along with the name of the fossil assemblage and geological age. This information is not only valuable for collectors and beginning students, but also for paleobotanists at all phases of their professional careers. Imparted with the facts is also the unspoken message that all those interested are welcome to partake in the bounty and beauty of fossil plants. As Tidwell mentions on p. 2, "Many important events in [the history of plant life] have been reconstructed using a specimen or collection donated by an amateur collector for scientific study". Indeed, many amateurs have the drive, energy, and time to devote weekends, years, or even lifetimes to collecting at a single locality or within a specific region which, of course, results in finding some really spectacular specimens.
A fascinating account of the succession of plants and vegetation through geological time follows. The distinctive twist here is brought about by specifically referring to certain fossil plants, paleofloras, or landscapes in western North America. (For example, did you know that Artemesia tridentata-the ubiquitous sagebrush of the west-first appeared in the later Miocene? Or, that Lake Bonneville in western Utah-which formed the great salt flats used to set land speed records these days-was an inland lake during the Pleistocene that was the size of Lake Michigan?) The distribution charts of the plant genera included in this section are also handy and enable the reader to see at a glance which plants she will find in what fossil flora.
The next chapter approaches fossil plants from the botanical point of view, surveying plant life sensu lato by taxa, from kingdom to genus, describing those plants most likely to be encountered by the reader. Each page is peppered with several, absolutely exquisite line drawings illustrating the salient features of the fossil plant remains, and there is a central section of 58 photographic plates, 16 of which are in color.
Permineralized wood is one of the most common plant fossils, and this is reflected in the extensive section on the identification of dicot wood. The various wood genera are illustrated by black-and-white line illustrations which, like the other line drawings, are as beautiful to behold as they are detailed. For example, the transverse section of Javelinoxylon (p. 402) is elegant enough to have come straight out of a portfolio of Art Noveau motifs.
The book concludes with a shape-and-outline picture key to commonly found plant parts (fern pinnae, gymnosperm cones, dicot leaves), as well as with a glossary of botanical terms, a bibliography, and an extensive book index.
The second edition of "Common Fossil Plants" differs from the first edition published by Brigham Young University Press by having a new typeface and format, both of which make the book much easier to read and render the it more aesthetically pleasing. New sections have been added, such "An illustrated key for the generic identification of winged seeds of the Pinaceae that have adfacial or abfacial surfaces exposed (modified from Wolfe and Schom 1990)". (This may sound daunting, but believe me, this level of detail is exactly what you need to identify fossil plants.) Some sections have been expanded (e.g., there are now more than twice as many localities in the index map) or improved (e.g., the reorganization of the distribution charts of plant genera has resulted in a series of tables that are easier to consult). There is also a new, detailed key to fossil angiosperm leaves alongside an illustrated glossary of leaf apex and base nomenclature. The length of the book has been increased by a third, and there are over 800 figures and photos in all.
If I were forced to level a criticism at this book, I would point out that some of the black and white photos lack clarity and contrast. Nevertheless, the rest of book more than makes up for these dark, blurry photos. (Something to improve on in the third edition.)
I know of no single other publication where you can get such valuable, practical, and detailed information on the identification of fossil plants. This book is an absolute must for all paleobotanists and botanical libraries (even if you already have the first edition), for all amateur collectors of fossil plants, as well as for any botanists with a fancy for ancient plants. - Carole T. Gee, Institute of Paleontology, University of Bonn, Germany.