Background. A wealth of data on the networks of ecological interactions present in the modern biota can be readily obtained, due to the ease of unlimited access to the living organisms that form these networks. In contrast, understanding of such interactions in ecosystems of the geologic past is incomplete. Specifically, in terrestrial ecosystems we know comparatively little about plant biotic interactions besides herbivory, oviposition, galling. Here we describe a tiny in situ fossil community which sheds light on concurrent plant-plant, plant-fungal, and plant-animal interactions.
Methods. A single silicified osmundaceous rhizome from a new locality of the early Eocene (ca. 52 Ma) Tufolitas Laguna del Hunco was studied in serial thin sections using light microscopy. The community of organisms colonizing the tissues of the rhizome was characterized by identifying the organisms, as well as mapping and quantifying their distribution. For this, a 200 x 200 µm grid was superimposed onto the rhizome cross section and the colonizers present at each node of the grid were tallied.
Results. Preserved in situ, this community offers a rare window onto aspects of ancient ecosystems usually lost to time and taphonomic processes. The community is surprisingly diverse and includes the first fossilized leafy liverworts in South America, also marking the only fossil record of leafy bryophyte epiphytes; several types of fungal hyphae and spores; microsclerotia with probable affinities in several ascomycete families; and oribatid mite coprolites.
Discussion. The community associated with the Patagonian rhizome enriches our understanding of plant biotic interactions in the distant past and adds to a growing body of literature, which indicates that osmundaceous rhizomes were important hosts for component communities in ancient ecosystems, just as they are today. Because osmundaceous rhizomes represent an ecological niche that has remained unchanged over time and space, and are abundant in the fossil record, they provide a good paleoecological model system that could be used for exploring plant biotic interactions across geologic time.