Stable carbon isotopes and the metabolism of the terrestrial Devonian organism Spongiophyton


Corresponding author: B. Fletcher. Tel.: +44 (0)114 222 0110; fax: +44 (0)114 222 0002; email:


Devonian fossils of Spongiophyton have been identified as a terrestrial evolutionary intermediate between algae and vascular land plants on the basis of their dichotomously branched, tubular morphology, thick cuticles, and the scattered distribution of surface pores. Our understanding of their physiology is, however, severely limited, but may be increased through the use of stable carbon isotope measurements. One such study led to the hypothesis that Spongiophyton carried a carbon isotope (δ13C) signature characteristic of lichens (Jahren et al., 2003Geology31, 99–102). Here, we outline three difficulties with accepting this idea and report independent isotopic measurements of Spongiophyton fossils from Canada and Ghana. Our results show that the isotopic discrimination of analogous tissues of Spongiophyton, extant lichens, liverworts and mosses are statistically indistinguishable. We suggest therefore that claims to have definitively identified lichen metabolism are premature, and cannot be sustained.