A Civil War canal yields a new species of plant fossil

Historic sites and Cretaceous fossils in the same news story. Woo-hoo!

A fossil leaf fragment collected decades ago on a Virginia canal bank has been identified as one of North America’s oldest flowering plants, a 115- to 125-million-year-old species new to science. The fossil find, an ancient relative of today’s bleeding hearts, poses a new question in the study of plant evolution: did Earth’s dominant group of flowering plants evolve along with its distinctive pollen? Or did pollen come later?

The find also unearths a forgotten chapter in Civil War history reminiscent of the film “Twelve Years a Slave.” In 1864 Union Army troops forced a group of freed slaves into involuntary labor, digging a canal along the James River at Dutch Gap, Virginia. The captive freedmen’s shovels exposed the oldest flowering plant fossil beds in North America, where the new plant species was ultimately found.

Dutch Gap Canal under construction in 1864. From The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes via Wikimedia Commons

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