Ginkgo Leaves: Portals to the Past

Students in Wallace State Community College’s Biology 104 class collected ginkgo tree leaves during the month of August for a Smithsonian research project.

Wallace State Community College students recently were on a hunt for portals to the past. The students and biology instructor, Connie Briehn, participated in a Fossil Atmosphere project spearheaded by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Through the project, students collected ginkgo leaves. Ginkgos are gymnosperms, meaning they have seeds, but don’t produce flowers. These leaves have survived through three mass extinctions, making them an ideal plant to study because they can provide a record from more than 200 million years ago through the present. In addition, while their natural range is restricted to China, ginkgo trees are now found all over the world.

The Smithsonian asked citizens from around the world to collect at least six leaves from a single short shoot or cluster from trees that are at least 10 feet tall and on public property. Citizens were also asked to take photos of the entire tree and one of the base of the tree and post the observations on iNaturalist in the Fossil Atmospheres project. Packed between layers of cardboard and newspaper, the leaves were mailed in to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Paleobiology, where they can be studied.

Briehn’s class recorded and submitted leaves on campus and from their hometowns, specifying the exact location of the leaves.

“It was fun to be a part of something where we can follow the researcher in charge of this at the Smithsonian, “ Briehn said. “This was a one-time citizen scientist project, and we had great participation from the class. We submitted leaves from many different areas around us, including as far north as Athens. We also identified if the leaves came from a male or female tree.”

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A row of ginkgo trees lines the front of Wallace State’s School of Nursing and Center for Science Building, where the class meets each week.

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