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The King of Dinosaurs

Paleobotany & Paleoecology

Understanding ancient environments

Paleoecology Symposium

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History and Case Western Reserve University are organizing an international paleoecology symposium September 10-12, 2015. Click here for details.


Paleobotany and paleoecology are related fields of study into ecological conditions of the past.

Paleobotany is the scientific study of ancient plants. Paleobotanists learn what plants were like long ago from fossils found in sedimentary rocks. These fossils can be impressions or compressions of the plants left on the rock's surface, or "petrified" objects, such as wood, which preserve the original plant material in rocklike form. Still other specimens are found in calcified lumps called coal balls, so named because they are usually found in or near coal deposits.

Paleoecology is the scientific study of past environments and the relationship between biotic and abiotic components of the ecosystem. Paleoecologists are interested in the ecosystem as a whole and derive their understanding of past environments from different lines of evidence, including fossil plants and animals, ancient soils and rocks. In other words, paleoecologists look at the many different parts that make up an ecosystem to try to understand what past environments were like. This field of study is important for anyone interested in past organisms because it provides the context for understanding the evolution of any particular lineage; it helps answer questions that deal with questions of origination, extinction and adaptation for an organism.

The department's research focus is on a global view of paleoecology and plant evolution. Curator Dr. Denise Su is interested in the interactions between biotic and abiotic elements of an ecosystem and how these interactions might have impacted the evolution of mammalian lineages within that ecosystem. Dr. Su's current research is on a late Miocene site in Yunnan Province, China, where abundant and diverse floral and faunal fossil assemblages have been recovered. She is also working on the Pliocene paleoecology of eastern Africa, focusing on habitat availability and use of early hominins.

The Museum holds an extensive paleobotany collection. It is composed of about 30,000 fossil specimens spanning the time period from the Precambrian Period to the Pleistocene Epoch. Of these, about 3,000 are from the Mississippian to Tertiary ages and the rest are from the Pennsylvanian (Coal Age).

The Department of Paleobotany and Paleoecology offers programs giving an opportunity for a more in-depth look at these related disciplines. Undergraduate students interested in a paid summer internship are encouraged to investigate the Kirtlandia Research Internship Program.

Curator of Paleobotany and Paleoecology: Dr. Denise Su

You may contact Dr. Su at or (216) 231-4600, ext. 3226.

To learn more about Dr. Su's research, visit