Rhynie chert

Rhynie chert

The Rhynie chert is an Early Devonian Lagerstättefound near the village of Rhynie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, containing exceptionally preserved plant, fungus, lichen and animal material petrified in three dimensions by covering with fast-setting volcanic minerals. The bulk of the fossil bed consists of primitive plants (which had water-conducting cells and sporangia, but no true leaves), along with arthropods, lichens, algae and fungi.

This fossil bed is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, the age of the site (Pragian, Early Devonian, formed about Ma|410| [cite journal|author=Rice, C. M., Ashcroft, W. A., Batten, D. J., Boyce, A. J., Caulfield, J. B. D., Fallick, A. E., Hole, M. J., Jones, E., Pearson, M. J., Rogers, G., Saxton, J. M., Stuart, F. M., Trewin, N. H. & Turner, G.|year=1995|title=A Devonian auriferous hot spring system, Rhynie, Scotland|journal=Journal of the Geological Society, London|volume=152|pages=229–250|doi=10.1144/gsjgs.152.2.0229] [ [http://www.bgs.ac.uk/nigl/pdf_downloads/2004AnnualReport.pdf Natural Environment Research Council ] ] ) places it at an early stage in the colonisation of land. Secondly, these cherts are famous for their exceptional state of ultrastructural preservation, with individual cell walls easily visible in polished specimens. Stomata have been counted and lignin remnants detected in the plant material, and the breathing apparatus of trigonotarbids (known as book lungs) can be seen in cross-sections. Fungal hyphae can be seen entering plant material, acting as decomposers and mycorrhizal symbionts.

Conditions of formation

The chert was formed when silica-rich water from volcanic springs rose rapidly and petrified the early terrestrial ecosystem, "in situ" and almost instantaneously, in much the same fashion that organisms are petrified by hot springs today - although the astounding fidelity of preservation has not been found in recent deposits. Hot springs, with temperatures between 90–120oC, were active in a number of episodes; the water had probably cooled to under 30oC before it reached the fossilised organisms. Their activity is preserved in 53 beds, 80mm thick on average, over a 35.41m sequence,cite journal|doi=10.1144/GSL.SP.2000.180.01.23|title=Palaeoecology and plant succession in a borehole through the Rhynie cherts, Lower Old Red Sandstone, Scotland|year=2000|author=Powell, C. L.|journal=Geological Society London Special Publications|volume=180|pages=439] interbedded with sands, shales and tuffs - which speak of local volcanic activity.cite journal
author = Rice, C.M.
coauthors = Trewin, N.H.; Anderson, L.I.
year = 2002
title = Geological setting of the Early Devonian Rhynie cherts, Aberdeenshire, Scotland: an early terrestrial hot spring system
journal = Journal of Geological Society
volume = 159
issue = 2
pages = 203
url = http://jgs.lyellcollection.org/cgi/content/abstract/159/2/203
accessdate = 2008-05-15
format = abstract
doi = 10.1144/0016-764900-181
] Deposition was very rapid. The fluids originated from a shallowly dipping extensional fault system to the west, which bounded an extensional half-graben.

Fossils were formed as silica formed in the hot springs themselves; when silica-rich water flooded the surrounding areas; and when it permeated into the surrounding soil. The texture of the sinter formed resemble those found today in freshwater streams at Yellowstone which are typically alkaline (pH 8.7) and tepid (20-28oC). The springs were periodically active, and flowed into an alluvial plain containing small lakes. By analogy with Yellowstone, the chert itself probably formed in a marshy area towards the latter end of the extent of outwash from the springs. Living vegetation covered around 55% of the land area, with litter covering 30% and the remaining 15% of the ground being bare.A braidedcite journal | author = Fayers | year = 2003 | doi = 10.1017/S0263593300000729 | title = A review of the palaeoenvironments and biota of the Windyfield chert | journal = Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh Earth Sciences | volume = 94 :Contains useful reconstructions of both the plant associations, and the regional setting.] river flowing to the north periodically deposited the sandy layers found in cores when it flooded its banks.cite journal
author = Trewin, N.H.
coauthors = Wilson, E.
year = 2004
title = Correlation of the Early Devonian Rhynie chert beds between three boreholes at Rhynie, Aberdeenshire
journal = Scottish Journal of Geology
volume = 40
issue = 1
pages = 73–81
doi = 10.1144/0036-9276/01-239
doi_brokendate = 2008-06-23

Sedimentary textures which appear to have formed in the hydrothermal vents themselves are preserved with a brecciated texture; "geyserite", a sediment with a botryoidal form reminiscent of modern vent margins, is also found. Spores collected from within surrounding rocks had been heated to different degrees, implying a complex history of local heating by volcanic processes.cite journal|doi=10.1017/S0263593300001449|title=Spore assemblages from the Lower Devonian ‘Lower Old Red Sandstone’ deposits of the Rhynie outlier, Scotland|year=2006|author=Wellman, Charles H.|journal=Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh Earth Sciences|volume=97]



The preservation of plants varies from perfect three dimensional cellular permineralisation to flattened charcoal films. cite journal|titleo=The Rhynie cherts: an early Devonian ecosystem preserved by hydrothermal activity|journal=Ciba Found Symp. |year=1996|volume=202|pages=131–45|pmid=9243014] On occasion, plants may have their vertical axes preserved in growth position, with rhizoids still attached to rhizomes; even the plant litter is preserved.

Plants were only found on the land - none lived in the water of lakes or hot springs. "Rhynia" typically grew on sandy surfaces, and is often preserved there in life position; "Horneophyton" grew on wict|sinter, the sediment formed by the hot springs. These two colonisers were subsequently joined by other genera.The time between sinter deposition events was too short to allow the populations to develop to climax communities, and correspondingly early colonisers appear most frequently, pseudo-randomly, in logged sequences.

Plants demonstrate best the great value of the exceptional preservation of the Rhynie chert. The presence of soft tissue, including parenchyma, is not observed elsewhere in the fossil record until the advent of amber in the Triassic.Verify source|date=May 2008 This allows the study of structures such as the air spaces "behind" stomata, whereas the conventional record at its best allows no more than the counting of stomata. It has also enabled paleobotanists to firmly deduce that plants such as "Agalophyton" were" not" aquatic, as once believed. Further, as plants are preserved in situ, it permits the study of exactly how and "why" the branching patterns of the early plants emerged, whereas the conventional record only showed that branching was present.cite journal|doi=10.1017/S0263593300000778|title=Embryophytic sporophytes in the Rhynie and Windyfield cherts|year=2003|author=Edwards, Dianne|journal=Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh Earth Sciences|volume=94] The analysis of rhizomes and rhizoids makes it possible to discern which plants had an active water uptake system (e.g. "Horneophyton"), and which were likely to have colonised waterlogged surfaces ("Asteroxylon"). In some cases, it is possible to see different mechanisms of repairing wounds, and to deduce that they were caused by fungal or bacterial infection.

The preservation of spores attached to sporangia allows spore genera to be matched with their producers - something that is otherwise very difficult to do.cite journal|doi=10.1017/S0263593300000791|title=Spores of the Rhynie chert plant Horneophyton lignieri (Kidston and Lang) Barghoorn and Darrah, 1938|year=2003|author=Wellman, Charles H.|journal=Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh Earth Sciences|volume=94] The chert also allows the identification of the gametophyte phases of species such as "Aglaophyton".cite journal|doi=10.1073/pnas.0501985102|title=Life history biology of early land plants: Deciphering the gametophyte phase|year=2005|author=Taylor, T. N.|journal=Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences|volume=102|pages=5892|pmid=15809414]

Analysis of spores shows that the flora was lacking in some elements common elsewhere at this time, likely due to its setting in a mountainous region, rather than in a lowland flood plain like most other fossil deposits. However, the spores, which are distinctive enough to permit their producing organism to be identified - are identical to those found elsewhere in "normal" environments. There is no clear-cut evidence that the plants of the Rhynie assemblage were specifically adapted to stressed environments, and it is likely that the flora in fact represents those members of the global fauna that happened to be capable of colonising and surviving a hot spring environment by virtue of fortuitous preadaptions.


The only alga to have been found in the Rhynie chert is the charophyte "Palaeonitella", which inhabited the alkaline freshwater pools towards the end of the sinter apron.cite journal|doi=10.1017/S0263593300000808|title=Charophyte algae from the Rhynie chert|year=2003|author=Kelman, Ruth|journal=Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh Earth Sciences|volume=94]


As a result of its exquisite preservation, the Rhynie chert boasts the most diverse non-marine fauna of its time. Typical members of the Rhynie chert arthropod fauna include the crustacean "Lepidocaris", the euthycarcinoid "Heterocrania",cite journal
author = Trewin, N.H.
coauthors = Fayers, S.R.; Kelman, R.
year = 2003
title = Subaqueous silicification of the contents of small ponds in an Early Devonian hot-spring complex, Rhynie, Scotland
journal = Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences
volume = 40
issue = 11
pages = 1697–1712
url = http://article.pubs.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/ppv/RPViewDoc?_handler_=HandleInitialGet&articleFile=e03-065.pdf&journal=cjes&volume=40
accessdate = 2008-05-15
doi = 10.1139/e03-065
] the springtail "Rhyniella praecursor", the harvestman "Eophalangium sheari"cite journal
author = Dunlop, J.A.
coauthors = Anderson, L.I.; Kerp, H.; Hass, H.
year = 2007
title = A harvestman (Arachnida: Opiliones) from the Early Devonian Rhynie cherts, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
journal = Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
volume = 94
issue = 04
pages = 341–354
doi = 10.1017/S0263593300000730
] , pseudoscorpions, Acari (mites), and trigonotarbids.cite journal
doi=10.1098/rspb.2004.2686|pmid=15255055|title=Palaeoecology and palaeophytogeography of the Rhynie chert plants: evidence from integrated analysis of "in situ" and dispersed spores|year=2004|author=Wellman, Charles H.|journal=Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences|volume=271|pages=985

The oldest known insect ("Rhyniognatha hirsti"), which resembles the modern springtails, was found in the Rhynie chert, [cite journal|doi=10.1038/291317a0|title=A new assessment of "Rhyniella", the earliest known insect, from the Devonian of Rhynie, Scotland|year=1981|author=Whalley, Paul|journal=Nature|volume=291|pages=317] pushing dates for the origination of insects back to the Silurian period.cite journal|doi=10.1038/nature02291|title=New light shed on the oldest insect|year=2004|author=Engel, Michael S.|journal=Nature|volume=427|pages=627]


Fungi known from the Rhynie chert include the chytridiomycetes,cite journal
author = Taylor, T.N.
coauthors = Remy, W.; Hass, H.
year = 1992
title = Fungi from the Lower Devonian Rhynie chert: Chytridiomycetes
journal = American Journal of Botany
volume = 79
issue = 11
pages = 1233–1241
url = http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-9122(199211)79:11%3C1233:FFTLDR%3E2.0.CO;2-B
accessdate = 2008-05-15
doi = 10.2307/2445050
] ascomycetes,cite journal
title=Perithecial ascomycetes from the 400 million year old Rhynie chert: an example of ancestral polymorphism
author=Taylor, T.N.
] oomycota (Peronosporomycetes)cite journal|doi=10.1111/j.1469-8137.2007.02008.x|title=Fungal endophytes in a 400-million-yr-old land plant: infection pathways, spatial distribution, and host responses|year=2007|author=Krings, Michael|journal=New Phytologist|volume=174|pages=648] and glomeromycetes; indeed the only fungal groups "not" yet known from the Rhynie are the Zygomycota (although they may have formed lichens - see later), and the Basidiomycota, the latter of which may not even have evolved by Rhynie time.rp|Fig. 1

The Chytridiomycetes, or Chytrids, are a basal group of fungi, closely related to the true fungi.

The chytrids display a range of behaviour in the Rhynie chert. wict|Eucarpic and wict|holocarpic forms are known - i.e. some forms grew specialised fruiting bodies while others did not show specialisation in this fashion. wict|Saprotrophy may be present, and parasitism is common; one individual has even been found parasitising a germinating gametophyte.. The fungi were aquatic, and grew in both plants and algae; they are also found preserved "loose" in the chert matrix. Their flagellate spores are preserved.

The largest organism present in Rhynie was probably a fungus, the enigmatic Prototaxites, growing as a mound a metre or more taller than anything in the community, whose isotopic composition varied like a saprotroph and whose septate pores resemble those of fungi.


In the rare instances that cyanobacteria are found in the fossil record, their presence is usually the subject of much controversy, for their simple form is difficult to distinguish from inorganic structures such as bubbles.

However, "bona fide" cyanobacteria are preserved in the Rhynie chert. The aquatic organisms are thought to belong to the Oscillatoriales section on the basis of biomarker absence.cite journal | author = Krings | year = 2007 | doi = 10.1016/j.revpalbo.2007.05.002 | title = A filamentous cyanobacterium showing structured colonial growth from the Early Devonian Rhynie chert | journal = Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology | volume = 146 | pages = 265 ] The fossils are filamentous, around 3 μm in diameter, and grew on plants and the sediment itself. They occasionally form structured colonies which go on to create microbial mats.


A new genus of lichen, "Winfrenatia", has been recovered from the Rhynie chert. The lichen comprises a thallus, made of layered, aseptate hyphae; a number of depressions are formed on its top surface. Each depression contains a net of hyphae holding a sheathed cyanobacterium. The fungus appears to be related to the Zygomycetes, and the photobiont resembles the wict|coccoid Gloeocapsa and Chroococcidiopsis.cite journal|title=A cyanolichen from the Lower Devonian Rhynie chert|author=Taylor, T.N.;Hass, H; Kerp, H|year=1997|journal=Am J Bot|volume=84|pages=992|doi=10.2307/2446290]


The Rhynie chert, by preserving a snapshot of an ecosystem "in situ" in high fidelty, gives a unique opportunity to observe interactions between species and kingdoms. There is evidence of parasitic behaviour by fungi on algae "Palaeonitella", provoking a hypertrophic response. Herbivory is also evident, judging by boring and piercingcite journal | author = Labandeira, CONRAD| year = 2007 | doi = 10.1111/j.1744-7917.2007.00152.x | title = The origin of herbivory on land: Initial patterns of plant tissue consumption by arthropods | journal = Insect Science | volume = 14 | pages = 259] wounds in various states of repair, and the mouthparts of arthropods.cite book
author = Kenrick, P.
coauthors = Crane, P.R.
year = 2000
title = The Origin And Early Evolution Of Plants On Land
journal = Shaking the Tree: Readings from Nature in the History of Life
url = http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&ie=UTF-8&id=M6yF0pU4eCsC&oi=fnd&pg=PA217&ots=sdZaNyvWU5&sig=dSdcQnOPIRsiNEbZ-US657yTR0g
format = Google books
accessdate = 2008-05-16

Coprolites - fossilised droppings - give a useful insight of what animals ate, even if the animals cannot be identified. Coprolites found in the Rhynie chert are typically between 0.5 and 3 mm in size, and contain a variety of contents.cite journal
author = Habgood, K.S.
coauthors = Hass, H.; Kerp, H.
year = 2003
title = Evidence for an early terrestrial food web: coprolites from the Early Devonian Rhynie chert
journal = Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
volume = 94
issue = 04
pages = 371–389
doi = 10.1017/S0263593300000754
publisher = Cambridge University Press
url = http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0263593300000754
accessdate = 2008-05-15
format = abstract
] Analysis of coprolites allows the identification of different feeding modes, including detritovory and herbivory; some coprolites are so densely packed with spores that it is possible that these made up a substantial proportion of some organisms' diets.

Plants responded to fungal colonisation in different ways, depending on the fungus. The rhizoids of "Nothia" displayed three responses to fungal infestation: the hyphae of some (mutualistic) colonists were encased by plant cell walls; other (parasitic) fungi were met with typical host responses of increased rhizome cell size; while yet other fungi solicited an increase in thickness and pigmentation of cell walls.cite journal|doi=10.1111/j.1469-8137.2007.02080.x|title=Rhynie chert: a window into a lost world of complex plant?fungus interactions|year=2007|author=Berbee, Mary L.|journal=New Phytologist|volume=174|pages=475] Once inside a plant cell, fungi produced spores, which are found in decaying plant cells; the cells may have decayed as a defence mechanism to prevent the fungi from spreading.

Fungal interactions are known to promote speciation in modern plants, and presumably also affected Devonian diversity by providing a selection pressure.

Mycorrhizae are also found in the Rhynie chert.cite journal|author=Remy W, Taylor TN, Hass H, Kerp H |year=1994|title= 4 hundred million year old vesicular-arbuscular mycorrhizae|journal= Proc. National Academy of Sciences|volume=91|pages=11841–11843|doi= 10.1073/pnas.91.25.11841|pmid= 11607500]


The bed lies under at least 1 metre of overburden, in a single small field near the village of Rhynie, so is effectively inaccessible to collectors; besides which, the site is an SSSI. A second unit, the Windyfield chert, is located some 700m from the Rhynie. The Rhynie chert extends for at least 80m along strike and 90m down-dip.

History of research

The chert was discovered by Dr William Mackie while mapping the western margin of the Rhynie basin in 1910–1913. Trenches were cut into the chert at the end of this period, and Kidston & Lang worked furiously to describe the plant fossils between 1917 and 1921. The arthropods were examined soon afterwards by different workers. Interest in the chert then waned until the field was reinvigorated by Lyon in the late 1950s, and new material was collected by further trenching from 1963-71. Since 1980, the chert has been examined by the Münster school, and from 1987 Aberdeen University, who confirmed that the chert was indeed produced by a hot spring setting.Cores, allowing an insight into the evolution of the chert over time, were drilled in 1988 and 1997, accompanied by further trenching efforts, which unearthed the Windyfield chert.cite journal | author = Trewin | year = 2003 | doi = 10.1017/S0263593300000699 | title = History of research on the geology and palaeontology of the Rhynie area, Aberdeenshire, Scotland | journal = Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh Earth Sciences | volume = 94 ]

Until recently, the Rhynie chert was the only such deposit known from the geological record, although recent work has turned up other localities from different time periods and continents.cite journal | author = Channing | year = 2007 | doi = 10.1017/S0016756807003263 | title = A new Middle – Late Jurassic flora and hot spring chert deposit from the Deseado Massif, Santa Cruz province, Argentina | journal = Geological Magazine | volume = 144 | pages = 401 ]

ee also

* Geology of Scotland
* Evolutionary history of plants

External links


Further reading

* cite book
author = Taylor, T.N.
coauthors = Taylor, E.L.
year = 2000
title = The Rhynie chert ecosystem: a model for understanding fungal interactions
journal = Microbial Endophytes
url = http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&ie=UTF-8&id=c_kuo5WD6GUC&oi=fnd&pg=PA31&dq=rhynie+chert+herbivory&ots=0K4HgbKoch&sig=J13ZbOTUCUQIZOuw8IyIeqCjr00
format = Free access @ Google books
accessdate = 2008-05-16


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