For the Love of Plants
April 15, 2014

For The Love Of Plants

We all have things we are passionate about. It’s what makes us human. For me, it’s writing, tabletop games, and music. For others, it may be things like sports, television shows, celebrities, family history, acting, or countless other things. No matter what someone is passionate about, you know that when they are, they are going to give that thing every bit of attention and effort that they can. It’s why, they say, if you can do something you love as a job, you will never work a day in your life.

For Jeff Benca, a self proclaimed “uber-geek” and graduate student in the Department of Integrative Biology and Museum of Paleontology at University of California Berkeley, that passion is for plants. More specifically, prehistoric plants. Such is his fascination with extinct flora that, when he submitted a paper describing a newly discovered species of long-extinct lycopod called Leclercqia scolopendra, he went a step further than most would. Rather than simply sketch out what this 400-million-year-old plant might have looked like, he had the design computer rendered which created an almost lifelike image that has been making waves among Benca’s peers. According to Benca, “Typically, when you see pictures of early lands plants, they’re not that sexy: there is a green forking stick and that’s about it. We don’t have many thorough reconstructions. I wanted to give an impression of what they may have really looked like. There are great color reconstructions of dinosaurs, so why not a plant?” Why not indeed.

The Leclercquia scolopendra, or more simply the “centipede clubmoss,” existed during the Devonian Period, or the so-called “age of fishes.” During that time, lycopods like the centipede clubmoss were one of the few types of plants with leaves. Its shoots were about a quarter-inch across and, according to Benca, likely formed prickly, scrambling, ground-covering mats. It had hook-like tips to its leaves that researchers still are not completely clear on what purpose they may have served, but some thing that they were used to climb over larger plants. Lycopods are still around today as the somewhat inconspicuous club mosses, quillworts, and spikemoss.

The focus of Benca’s paper was to demonstrate a new technique that is now helping paleobotanists interpret early land plant fossils with a much greater degree of accuracy. Benca and his colleagues tested this method on living clubmosses, since they share many traits with earlier lycopods. Benca’s computer generated image was displayed as the cover of March’s centennial issue of the American Journal of Botany while Jeff Benca himself is now working in the paleobotany lab of Cindy Looy as a Berkeley assistant professor of integrative biology where he works to establish an ever growing list of living lycopod species, many of which are set to eventually be incorporated into the UC and Jepson Hebaria collections.

If nothing else, Jeff Benca’s love of prehistoric plants shows us how it is possible to follow your passions and make something great out of them, no matter how unusual others might find them to be.

Image Credit: Jeff Benca

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