Palaeobotany for Paleoartists VI: paleoart history and the Potomac Group

For this new post, I want to share a piece of paleoartistic history with you.
This comes thanks to from James Doyle, a palaeobotanist with a long history of research in the Early Cretaceous and the origin of the angiosperms, who is now an emeritus at the University of California, Davis.

In the 1970s, Jim worked as a postdoc with Leo Hickey, who was working at the Smithsonian. They investigated the Potomac Group, a geological series from the Lower Cretaceous which is exposed in various localities between Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia. We have talked about this locality in our previous post. This work resulted in a deep understanding of both leaf and pollen fossils of angiosperms in the Potomac group, and served as the basis of numerous subsequent studies on the ecological determinants of the Cretaceous angiosperm radiation and expansion.

According to Jim, while he was walking over the Washtenaw River bridge on the way from his apartment to the University of Michigan campus, he had a ‘vision’ (probably as a consequence of too much hard work) triggered by “looking down at the river and seeing the sun reflected off the rippled surface, as in the downwash of a helicopter’s blades“. In this vision, he was in a helicopter flying across a Potomac Group river and over a stream levee, a backswamp pond, and the swamp forest beyond that. Jim then sketched the image from this ‘vision’ and send it to Leo Hickey. This was used by Leo as a basis for an exhibit at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, “where the visitor walked between a diorama looking from the levee across the river on one side and across the lake on the other“.

In a publication in honor of Leo Hickey, many of his students and collaborators report that this was Leo’s favourite part of the Smithsonian fossil halls. Recordings from the Smithsonian archive show that Leo gave extremely precise instructions to the artists:

“The “water” at the edge of the diorama’s swamp had to be the color of strong tea to reflect the dissolved tannins, somewhat translucent to a depth of a few inches, but opaque where deeper.The “north” side of a log had to be painted darker than the dry, sun-bleached “south” side. The attention to detail must have been maddening tothe artists, but it delighted generations of museum goers and fanned the imaginations of morethan one future paleobotanist. Another unique perspective was the minor and distant role for dinosaurs in Leo’s Cretaceous landscape—the plants were the stars of the show” Wing et al. (2014), p.73

Although the exhibition does not exist anymore, Jim shared with me two slides scanned by Leo Hickey. I am now sharing these with you (with Jim’s permission), to show how impressive plant paleoart can be.

In this first picture, we see some low-stature Sapindopsis plants, as well as a couple of more typical platanoids on the levee.

In this second picture, we have a pond with Alismaphyllum (on the fron left) and Nelumbites (front center and more back left). In the background, Sphenolepis and araucarians are the main components of the forests.


Wing, S.L., Johnson, K.R., Peppe, D.J., Green, W.A. and Taylor, D.W., 2014. The Multi-Stranded Career of Leo J. Hickey. Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, 55(2), pp.69-78.

One response to “Palaeobotany for Paleoartists VI: paleoart history and the Potomac Group”

  1. […] Many potential members of the Alismatales, a group of monocots that includes many aquatics, are also retrieved in the Early Cretaceous. These include members of the Araceae, which are often emerging aquatics. The Crato formation has Spixiarum kipea, while Orontiophyllum ferreri and Turolospadix bogneri is retrieved in the Early Cretaceous of Spain. Many alismataceous leaves are also found from other Early Cretaceous outcrops, such as the Potomac Group. […]


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