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Selena Smith

Research Interests

Plants are amazing organisms that we greatly depend on for food, materials, well-being, and a clean and healthy environment. The fossil record of plants provides us with critical information on past climates and environments, ecosystem structure, and evolution within plants. My research focuses on understanding all aspects of plant biology in the Cretaceous and Paleogene time periods, ≈145 to 23 million years ago. This is an interesting time period for two reasons. In the Cretaceous, we see the evolution of flowering plants (angiosperms) as well as an increase in the number of species of other groups, like pines and ferns; how did this affect ecosystems? What was the timing, cause, and course of these evolutionary radiations? The Paleogene is notable for including one of the warmest examples of a global greenhouse climate in the early Eocene (≈55–40 million years ago), followed by cooling and a switch to the icehouse climate we live in today. Within this context, what can we learn about how plants lived and evolved in past warm worlds? What impact did this changing climate have on evolution and ecosystem structure? Anatomy and morphology of leaves, fruits, seeds, and phytoliths play a critical role in my research, as tools for confidently identifying plant fossils and putting them in a broader evolutionary and environmental context. My research currently focuses on the paleobiology of monocot flowering plants (e.g., orchids, gingers, bananas, grasses, palms, lilies, sedges, seagrasses) and the use of 3D visualization techniques (e.g., x-ray tomography) in paleontology. Current field sites include southwestern Montana, various localities in western North America and Europe, as well as work at museums, herbaria, botanical gardens and synchrotron facilities.