The enigmatic Paleozoic fossil PrototaxitesDawson 1859 consists of tree-like trunks as long as 8 m constructed of interwoven tubes <50 mm in diameter. Prototaxites specimens from five localities differ from contemporaneous vascular plants by exhibiting a carbon isotopic range, within and between localities, of as much as 13‰ δ13C. Pyrolysis–gas chromatography–mass spectrometry highlights compositional differences between Prototaxites and co-occurring plant fossils and supports interpretation of isotopic distinctions as biological rather than diagenetic in origin. Such a large isotopic range is difficult to reconcile with an autotrophic metabolism, suggesting instead that, consistent with anatomy-based interpretation as a fungus, Prototaxites was a heterotroph that lived on isotopically heterogeneous substrates. Light isotopic values of Prototaxites approximate those of vascular plants from the same localities; in contrast, heavy extremes seen in the Lower Devonian appear to reflect consumption of primary producers with carbon-concentrating mechanisms, such as cryptobiotic soil crusts, or possibly bryophytes. Prototaxites biogeochemistry thus suggests that a biologically heterogeneous mosaic of primary producers characterized land surfaces well into the vascular plant era.

You do not have access to this content, please speak to your institutional administrator if you feel you should have access.