Monthly archives of “May 2015

Palissya fossil cone from New Zealand Jurassic
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Palissya – mysterious cone of New Zealand’s Jurassic forests

In the early 1980s when I was working on the Jurassic fossil forest of Curio Bay, near the bottom end of New Zealand’s South Island, it seemed clear that two main types of tree formed the forest canopy. There were two types of conifer foliage fossil around Curio Bay- one type had the fine, feather-like shoots like today’s matai, and was called Elatocladus. It was probably in the Podocarpaceae family, or some relative, perhaps a distant ancestor. The other had larger leaves, more like a narrow kauri or one of the larger totaras and was called Podozamites. It was probably in the Araucariaceae family. Microscopic analysis of petrified wood from the area also showed two types: Mesembrioxylon and Araucarioxylon. Future research will probably change these names, but they both support Podocarpaceae and Araucariaceae as being the main trees in the forest. There were also two types of cone (or at least cone scales). There were the isolated, wedge-shaped scales, a bit like those of the kauri pine. Thus again supporting Araucariaceae on-site. The second cone was always found intact – it was long and narrow, about the size of a finger (the featured image has a cone where the outside is visible on the left, and a cross-section is visible to the right). It was called Palissya, a genus that had also been found in the Jurassic of Europe. Under each one of its scales there are several attachments – these are where the seeds would have sat. If you had picked up a ripe cone in the Jurassic and ran your finger-nail the wrong way down a cone, several small seeds would have fallen out at each scale – quite distinct from the living Podocarpaceae, which don’t have cones at all.

One of the earlier workers on the New Zealand Jurassic, Edwards, had (in 1934) claimed to have found one of these cone fossils attached to what seemed to be an Elatocladus conifer shoot. Thus Palissya was the cone of the Podocarpaceae trees (perhaps ‘primitive’ ones) of the Curio Bay forest. It all made perfect sense. And as it turns out, probably entirely wrong.

In the early 1990s I took Andrew Drinnan, an Australian paleobotanist, to one of the sites with fossil Palissya not far from Curio Bay – a few kilometers to the west on Slope Point. A paper was subsequently published (Parris et al. 1995) that discussed the New Zealand and Australian examples of Palissya – and expressed doubt that they were from conifers. Some time later I met with Steve McLoughlin, another Australian paleobotanist who said he was fairly sure Palissya was not the cone of a conifer – but of some other seed-forming plant. That really puzzled me, as the biodiversity of the Curio Bay forest was pretty low.  We have (or think we have) a reasonable idea what kind of cones/fruits most of the other plants formed. So if Palyssia didn’t grow on conifer trees, what did it grow on?

Fast-forward to last year. A new paper (Pattemore et al. 2014) has looked at the issue again. They concluded that the Australasian Palissya were quite unlike the European ones – and were therefore not Palissya at all.  They appear to be either in, or related to,  a genus called Knezourocarpon – that was  described earlier from the Jurassic of Queensland. As for what plants did produce these cones, Pattemore et al. (2014) suggested “ginkgoalean or pteridospermous affinity”.

The New Zealand ‘Palissya‘ remain a mystery-plant. Surely if the cones are relatively common fossils, the associated foliage must be there as well?  There is a very long, narrow leaf, only 2-3 mm wide, that turns up in beds that have ‘Palissya‘.  Not sure what to call it yet (there are a bunch of fairly meaningless names that can apply). But this could be the foliage of Palissya. Edwards (1934) said his specimen had “a few linear appressed leaves” on its stalk. Rather than being leaves of Elatocladus, they may be of this other plant. Just a hunch.

A Palissya cone lies among numerous, very narrow leaves - foliage from the same plant? It''s one of New Zealand's Jurassic plant fossils.

A Palissya cone lies among numerous, very narrow leaves – foliage from the same plant?



Edwards, W. N. 1934: Jurassic plants from New Zealand. Annals and Magazine of Natural History, ser. 10, 13: 81–109.

Parris, Kirsten M., Drinnan, Andrew N. and Cantrill, David J. (1995) ‘Palissya cones from the Mesozoic of Australia and New Zealand’, Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology, 19:2, 87 — 111.

Pattemore, G.A., 2000. A new Early Jurassic pteridosperm fructification from Queensland. J. Afr. Earth Sci. 31 (1), 187–193

Pattemore, G. A., Rigby, J. F. and Playford, G. (2014) Palissya: A global review and reassessment of Eastern Gondwanan material. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, 210 5061.

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Thinking Outside the Triangle – Polynesian Origins

New Zealand school kids, at least when I was one, were taught to draw the Polynesian triangle. It has Hawaii at the top corner, Easter Island at another, and New Zealand at the third. Within this triangle, so we were told, are Polynesian cultures. Outside of it you have, for example, Micronesian and Melanesian. Within Polynesia, languages are mutually intelligible to a high degree. When the ancestors of the Maori came to New Zealand about 800 years ago, they bought a version of Polynesian language with them, and applied words to familiar entities, or perhaps to the next best things. One of the funniest results was surely when the first New Zealanders uttered their equivalent of “Bloody Hell!” followed by something like “Now THAT’s a moa!”, thus applying the Polynesian word for the common chicken to the now extinct flightless birds that could reach to around 2 m in height.

Over the years I’ve kept an eye out on research addressing where the Polynesians themselves came from. It seems clear from both linguistic and DNA evidence that they may have originated in Taiwan, then skirted the Melanesian islands (probably picking up some DNA along the way) before expanding into the Pacific. But somehow this all seemed a bit far in past to me – I had grown up with the hard lines of that Polynesian triangle. They had become a sort of mental barrier.

But then in Indonesia I learned that common words of Bhasa are almost identical to Maori. The word for five is ‘lima’ in Bhasa and ‘rima’ in Maori. Water is ‘air’ (pronouced ay-er) in Bahasa and ‘wai’ in Maori. This was a revelation to me – Indonesia is a long way out of the Polynesian triangle. Chatting with tribal people from Aceh in Sumatra to the mountains of northern Philippines all resulted in words that sounded quite familiar. One of the words for ‘bird’ around Aceh is ‘manok’, in New Zealand it’s ‘manu’. None of this will be new to linguists of course. There were some other, harder to pin down things. Driving past Indonesian villages where the women would be sitting I the verandas off their houses spotting the ‘bule’ (pronounced “boo-lay” = foreigner) looked reminded me of the old Burton Brothers photos of Maori in the 19th century. The only thing missing in their portraits of Maori women posing in the verandas of their whares (huts) would be the mobile phones. ‘Polynesia’ started to feel a lot more like a part of east Asia than something defined by a triangle.

Taiwan, where the genetic evidence points, lies just off the coast of mainland Asia – tantalisingly close. How far can we take Polynesian origins? China anyone? I guess work is already under way to more precisely narrow down genetic origins in Asia.

Linguistically I know there are a lot of problems trying to trace words back into deep time, and the science is replete with amateurs popping up with their discoveries, but here’s my five cents worth … Last week I had an odd experience. I had to give a short talk in China – introducing myself and New Zealand. I got to the point where I said New Zealand has two official languages – English and Maori. Our passports are in both languages and in many public institutions, so are the signs. I pointed out there are also now a lot of Maori words that one can hear on English TV in New Zealand. These words would be opaque to a visitor, but no kiwi would bat an eye. They have been incorporated into Pakeha (non-Maori New Zealand) English. Words like ‘whanau’ = ‘family’, ‘iwi’ = ‘tribe’ and ‘hui’ = ‘meeting’. At this point my Chinese hosts looked astonished – then burst out laughing. “But ‘hui’ is what we are having now – ‘hui’ is ‘meeting’ in Chinese!”

Selected References

Christian, F. W. (1916). “Asiatic origin of the word ‘moa’.” Journal of the Polynesian Society 25: 126-127.

Forth, G. (2006). “Words for ‘bird’ in eastern Indonesia.” Journal of Ethnobiology 26: 177-207.

Friedlaender JS, Friedlaender FR, Reed FA, Kidd KK, Kidd JR, et al. (2008) The genetic structure of Pacific Islanders. PLoS Genet 4(1): e19. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.0040019

Gray, R. D. and F. M. Jordan (2000). “Language trees support the express-train sequence of Austronesian expansion.” Nature 405: 1052-1055.

Underhill, P. A., G. Passarino, A. A. Lin, S. Marzuki, P. J. Oefner, L. L. Cavalli-Sforza and G. K. Chambers (2001). “Maori Origins, Y-Chromosome Haplotypes and Implications for Human History in the Pacific.” Human Mutation 17: 271-280.