We just received the great news that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has awarded us $1.2 million for a collaborative, multi-institution study of the “fern spore spike”, a phenomenon in the fossil record in which fern spores are disproportionately highly represented relative to spores and pollen of other plant groups following mass extinction events. The grant, whose official title is “Surviving a Mass Extinction: Lessons from the K-Pg Fern Spike”, will take an interdisciplinary approach that merges phylogenetic, physiological, and paleovegetation analyses to explore the fern spore spike from multiple angles. Emily is the lead PI and co-PIs include Drs. Jacquelyn Gill (U Maine), Jarmilla Pittermann (UC Santa Cruz), Ellen Currano (U Wyoming), and Regan Dunn (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles).

Official abstract: The K-T asteroid impact and its aftermath profoundly disrupted life across the planet. While this event is usually associated with the loss of dinosaurs, its impact on plants –which form the foundation of ecosystems across the globe – was also profound. In north temperate latitudes, regions close to the impact site were denuded of all life, forests were leveled, and four out of five species of plants went extinct. Analysis of North American K-T sediments indicate that generalist ferns were the first plants to recolonize these sites. Over time, this “fern spike” was noted as a biomarker in K-T localities around the globe. Surprisingly, the attributes that imparted ferns with such astonishing resilience to stress have not been investigated. This is non-trivial because the immediate post-impact climate was stressful enough to largely eliminate competition from both flowering and non-flowering plants, which today are the dominant plant groups on Earth with respect to species numbers, biomass, and economic significance. The goal of the proposed research is to combine fossil and phylogenetic analyses with physiological experiments to understand why ferns responded differently than other plants to the post-impact environment.