St. John’s Antigua- Upper school students at Island Academy International School took a rare trip into Antigua’s distant past yesterday with a visit from Dr James Mickle, a professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and founding developer of the paleobotany wing of the Naples Botanical Garden in Italy.
Dr Mickle kept the students spellbound for over an hour with a presentation on paleobotany, the study of ancient plants. Given that fossilised wood is the national stone of Antigua, the lecture was particularly well suited. The central topic was what can be learned from fossilised plants about the prehistoric climate, ecological diversity and geological time.
In August 2010 several samples of fossilised wood were collected near Island Academy and were sent to Dr Mickle. The samples were collected by Environmental Awareness Group (EAG) members Dr Brian Cooper and Michael Kirk.
Dr Mickle’s preliminary laboratory findings indicate the presence of a palm species, one, possibly two, species of dicot trees and a conifer. Research is currently under way to determine the exact species.
The samples were found in a mixed clay soil thought to be formed between the late Oligocene and early Miocene (25-35 million years ago). Dr Mickle commented that the fossils were extremely well preserved.
When sliced for viewing with a microscope, prominent diagnostic traits stood out including xylem, prominent rays, and fibers. There is very little information in the literature regarding which plants inhabited Antigua and when they lived here. All parties involved are looking to learn more.
Dr Mickle demonstrated for the students a technique for “lifting” a fossil from a coal ball, a stone over 290 million years old that he brought from a mine in Ohio. The sliced edge of the coal ball was polished to a glassy texture before the sample was gently submerged in acid, which dissolved the carbonates surrounding plant remains. The surface was then flushed with acetone onto which a piece of acetate film was applied. After 20 minutes the acetone had fused the film to the surface fossils, and peeling the film back yielded a thin layer of fossilised plant remains embedded in plastic.
This lecture was part of an ongoing effort by the staff of Island Academy to bring world-renowned experts to give presentations at the school.
On October 8, Dr Mickle spoke at the Museum of Antigua & Barbuda in downtown St John’s, in an event sponsored by the EAG.