A day in the Cretaceous of Patagonia

For today’s post, I want to show you an astounding piece of art I commissioned to Ida Kalsta, an extraordinary illustrator and artist. This represents an environment from the Early Cretaceous (Aptian, ~116 millions of years ago) of Patagonia, in particular the possible environment of the Ticoa harrisii fossiliferous layer in the Anfiteatro de Ticó formation. The species represented are Araucarites (as an araucariaceous tree forming the canopy), the Ruflorinia/Ktalenia plant (as a small understorey shrub on the right of the frame), and the Mesodescolea plicata plant (as a larger understorey shrub in the center and in the front).

This is an example of how plant paleoart can still be scientifically sound and artistically pleasing even when including many speculative ideas. The riverbank environment of the piece was inspired by the depositional environment of the layer, where most fossils show little evidence of transport and are deposited in fluvial deposits. The lightning of the scene reflects the more open canopy that coniferous forests with araucarian trees tend to have. On the other hand, the small, fern-like habit of the Ruflorinia/Ktalenia plant and most of the details of the Mesodescolea plant have no direct evidence supporting them. However, Ida was inspired for this reconstruction by extant examples of understorey plants (from the Austrobaileyales for Mesodescolea). The understorey habit was inferred from the presence of cuticular striae on the cuticle and large stomatal vestibula of both Mesodescolea and Ruflorinia, traits which have been often associated with plants growing in shaded, wet conditions.

Since speculation based on fragmentary is not uncommon in animal paleoart (Spinosaurus anyone?), I hope this will help push more adventurous plant paleoart. Plants growth has many predictable patterns (see my Paleobotany for Paleoartists series for some examples), and thus offers many possibilities to create great art that can still be scientifically informative!

I wish to thank Ida for creating this, go check the rest of her work!

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