Plant Detective Aviwe Matiwane: South African paleobotanist

Plant Detective Aviwe Matiwane: South African paleobotanist

“Who would have thought that one day a curious village girl would be a palaeobotanist? Don’t let anyone dim your light. Be bright in the corner where you are.” — tweeted by Aviwe Matiwane (July 8, 2020)

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Photo: Gorgeous image of a Glossopteris leaf, photo taken by and courtesy of Aviwe Matiwane.


The tweet above seems particularly relevant for a post about Aviwe Matiwane because if there is anyone whose light shines brilliantly, it is hers.

We connected—at that time, she in warm, sunny Grahamstown of South Africa and me in snowy New Hampshire of the US—thanks to Skype.  

Speaking with anyone for the first time about their work is not always as straight-forward as one might think.  It’s a two-way street: one hopes that the person being interviewed wants to and is able to articulate information about their research, just as one hopes I ask the right questions to get to the heart of that research, as well as make them feel comfortable with me to speak openly.  It doesn’t always work.  

In this case, I needn’t have worried, as Aviwe not only excels at scientific communication, but she makes you feel as if you’ve known her forever.  Our conversation about fossils was punctuated by laughter and giggles. It was fascinating; it was fun; it was inspiring.

But one thing was abundantly clear: some aspects of paleobotany, the study of fossil plants, are not at all easy.

Laughing, she described the current taxonomic research on Glossopteris as “a mess,” the sorting of which is “a headache” (more laughter), and the reason why so many scientists don’t focus on this fossil plant from the Permian. 

Glossopteris” is the name given specifically to a fossil leaf in the 1800s by A.T. Brongniart.  Today, these leaves are known from many continents and countries, but they are most prevalent in Africa, India, South America, Australia and Antarctica. 

They appeared on Earth millions of years after the first plants evolved, and they thrived during the Permian era (about 299-252 million years ago).  Flowering plants would not appear for approximately 100 million years later.

While “Glossopteris” originally referred simply to the leaf, glossopterids involve a myriad of different plants that may have grown in a variety of different ecological niches.  Research indicates the leaves may have come from fern-like plants, small shrubs, small trees and enormous trees.  Some argue that these trees were deciduous (hence the discovery of so many leaves on their own), and some maintain they were also ancient conifers.

And imagine trying to put together extinct plants whose separate components (organs) are not necessarily found together.

Aviwe is right: it’s a mess.