Color photo shows seed, on left side sticking up between two tall spikes (compare to line drawing). Blue-and-white scale indicates seed is about 5mm long (shown 4.5x natural size). Black areas are actual carbon from the original 360 million-year-old seed. Line drawing is a reconstruction of three seeds (shaded) within a cupule (the tall, four-pointed hand-like parts). Parts have been cut away from two of the seeds to show internal construction.
(Photos and drawing courtesy of William Gillespie)

By Fred Schroyer

Most plants we see today reproduce by seeds, and this has proven to be a very successful and reliable method. But 360 million years ago, most plants reproduced by spores. Seeds were something new, an experiment in carrying the genetic code from one generation to the next.

Seeds from very early in this experimental period have been discovered in Devonian-age rocks in Randolph County. Only a quarter-inch or so long, carbon-black in the light brown rock, and borne within a hand-like cupule, these seeds are the oldest known in the world (color photo). It has not yet been proven to which plant they belonged, but the list is rapidly being narrowed as the study continues.

The seeds were discovered by William Gillespie, who is no newcomer to fossil plants. He is Assistant to the Commissioner of Agriculture for West Virginia, an adjunct Associate Professor of Geology at West Virginia University, and a fossil plant collector for some 30 years. He is also coauthor of one of the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey's most popular publications, Plant Fossils of West Virginia.

Gillespie says that work leading to the find began several years ago when the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey asked him to examine some fossil plants found near a thin coal bed in Randolph County. The fossils were abundant and well-preserved, and he identified them as late Devonian in age, or about 345 million years old.

In the winter of 1979-1980, he was consulted by the U.S. Geological Survey to help study the geology of the same area, using his knowledge of plant fossils. Digging deeper than before, he found masses of fossils, including bark, twigs, the leaves of several plants, and seed cupules (the hand-like part holding the seed, shown in the drawing), but no seeds.

Soon, however, Gillespie was contacted by Gar Rothwell of Ohio University and Steven Scheckler of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, both plant-fossil specialists interested in finding fossil- collecting sites. He led them to the place where he had found the cupules.

It was "the most fantastic two hours of digging I ever put in," Gillespie says. On this and subsequent days, over 200 seeds were found, beautifully preserved. "It's very exciting. The time of origin of the seed plants is one of the big mysteries in science. And I expect more dramatic finds in the next few years…the West Virginia site is very important to science because many of the fossils have their internal anatomy preserved, making detailed study possible. This site may be, and probably is, the most productive Devonian-age plant-fossil locality ever found." The seeds, other plant parts, and some fossil animals from the site are now being studied by specialists across the nation.

Gillespie cautioned that someone, he hopes himself, may some day find even older and more primitive seeds, but until this happens the 200 specimens from Randolph County will carry the record.

Gillespie expects to see at least a dozen scientific papers published on the fossils already found. He added, "We are pleased that members of the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey have played a role in one of the decade's most important scientific discoveries."


Further Reading

The Earliest Seeds: W. H. Gillespie, G. W. Rothwell, and S. E. Scheckler, technical article in Nature, Vol. 293, No. 5832, October 8, 1981, pp. 462-464.

Plant Fossils of West Virginia: W. H. Gillespie and others, 1978. Excellent introduction to how fossils formed, fossil collecting, and identification guide with hundreds of photographs; text used in college courses. Publication ED-3A, $4.00 (to order, see Contents page).

(Article reprinted from Mountain State Geology, December 1981.)

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