480 million-year-old fossil spores from Western Australia record how ancient plants spread to land

When plants first ventured onto the land, evolving from freshwater-dwelling algae, more than 500 million years ago, they transformed the planet. By drawing carbon dioxide from the air, they cooled Earth, and by eroding rock surfaces they helped build the soil that now covers so much land.

These changes to the planet’s atmosphere and land surface paved the way for the evolution of the biosphere we know. Land plants make up around 80% of Earth’s biomass.

The pioneering plants were small and moss-like, and they had to overcome two big challenges to survive on land: avoiding drying out, and surviving the Sun’s harsh ultraviolet light.

In rock samples from Canning Basin in the north of Western Australia, we have discovered 480 million-year-old fossilised spores from early land plants alongside spores from ancestral water-dwelling algae. These are the oldest land plant spores found, and they give us new clues about when and where plants made the jump to land and also how they managed to survive. The research is published in Science.