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Fossilized pollen malformations as indicators of past environmental stress and meiotic disruption: insights from modern conifers


Benca, Jeffrey; Duijnstee, Ivo; Looy, Cindy (2022), Fossilized pollen malformations as indicators of past environmental stress and meiotic disruption: insights from modern conifers, Dryad, Dataset,


Pollen malformations have been proposed as a paleoenvironmental stress proxy. However, the frequency and variability of pollen malformations under near-optimal conditions and environmental stress, as well as their developmental origins, remain unclear. To bridge these gaps, we compared pollen malformation frequencies and assemblages of 14 extant conifer genera of Pinaceae and Podocarpaceae producing saccate (winged) grains grown under near-optimal conditions. These baseline pollen yields were compared with those produced by Pinus mugo ‘Columnaris’ cultured under an abiotic stress—three experimentally heightened UV-B regimes proposed for the end-Permian crisis. We additionally reviewed previous cytological literature of abnormal microsporogenesis in conifers. Under near-optimal conditions, malformations comprise <3% of pollen yields in 12 out of 13 bisaccate genera and >10% of yields in the naturally trisaccate Dacrycarpus dacrydioides. We detected no phylogenetic pattern in malformation assemblages of the baseline comparisons. UV-B irradiated P. mugo produced significantly higher malformation frequencies and different assemblage compositions when compared with baseline bisaccate lineages. We propose that pollen malformations originate during the meiotic and tetrad stages of microsporogenesis and present a framework for the ontogeny of different malformation types seen in the fossil record. Malformations comprising >3% of bisaccate pollen yields can be used as a paleoenvironmental stress proxy, but rare, naturally trisaccate lineages are not suitable for such assessments. Furthermore, heightened UV-B not only increases pollen malformation production, but also alters the types of abnormalities trees produce. Different environmental stresses may therefore leave behind distinct fingerprints in the fossil record.


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National Science Foundation, Award: 1000135655

National Science Foundation, Award: 1457846

Paleontological Society

Research Council of Norway, Award: 223272.L.