Paleobotany

Photo: Richard Brown Photography
Photo: Richard Brown Photography

Paleobotany at the Burke Museum

With approximately 60,000 specimens, the Burke’s collection of fossil leaves, flowers, seeds and fruits, wood, plant microfossils (pollen and plant silica, or phytoliths), and fossil insects are the second largest on the West Coast.

Although plant fossils from all over western North America are represented, the focus of the paleobotany collections is the Cenozoic of the Pacific Northwest. For example, they encompass Eocene macrofossils and insects from Republic, WA, and other Okanagan Highlands floras, and Miocene permineralized wood are prominently featured. The fossil phytolith collection is among the largest in the world, and includes over 2,500 mainly Cretaceous and Cenozoic assemblages.

Apart from fossils, comprehensive reference collections of modern leaves, wood, seeds, fruits, pollen and phytoliths exist to aid in identification of fossils.

Search the Collection

In total, the Geology & Paleontology Department cares for more than 4 million specimens of fossil invertebrates, vertebrates, plants, microfossils and trace fossils.

Geology & Paleontology Database

Collection Highlights

The paleobotany macrofossil collection includes specimens, mainly from North America, that range from the Devonian to the Pleistocene but with a focus on the Cenozoic.

In particular, the Burke holds one of the world’s largest collections of Cenozoic floras for the Pacific Northwest region (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia). These floras, many of which are considered to be Lagerstätten because of their exceptional preservation, have produced 57 holotypes.

Highlights: Compression floras (and associated insects, fish, and bird feathers) from the Eocene of Washington and BC (e.g., Republic, McAbee, Princeton) providing unique windows into the warmest period on Earth in the last 66 million years; Miocene compression floras (and associated pollen, phytoliths, diatoms, and insects) from the Miocene of Washington and Idaho (e.g., Clarkia), deposited in lakes that formed when the Columbia River Basalts dammed river valleys.

The collection consists primarily of permineralized wood formed during the early to middle Miocene when extensive Columbia River flood basalts covered large parts of the Pacific Northwest. This includes collections made by G.F. Beck. Thin-sections have been made of many of these specimens.

Highlight: Miocene of Washington (e.g., Vantage).

The phytolith collection consists of slides and vials of biosilica (phytoliths, diatoms, sponge spicules, chrysophyte cysts) extracted from Cretaceous to Pleistocene sediment samples from all over the world (North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa). Many of the sediment samples were collected from faunal sites.

Highlights: Cenozoic of North America (e.g., Great Plains, northern Rocky Mountains, and Pacific Northwest); Cenozoic of southern South America; late Cretaceous of India

Burke paleobotany hosts a small cleared leaf collection featuring temperate hardwood forest leaves.

The large collection consists of over 5,000 hand specimens of wood from 150 plant families worldwide.

Highlights: Exemplars of wood from 150 families worldwide, donated by University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences; Professor Emeritus Minze Stuiver’s reference collection of wood, with which he pioneered using radiocarbon in tree-rings to study solar activity.

The phytolith plant collection consists of 2,000 slides and vials of phytoliths extracted from modern plant taxa, with leaves, reproductive structures, stem/wood and roots extracted separately. A little less than half of the samples are from grasses (Poaceae); the rest are from a wide variety of mainly land plants (e.g., bryophytes, ferns, and conifers), with a major focus on angiosperms.

Our small phytolith soil assemblage collection features phytolith assemblages extracted from soil samples from mainly North and South America.

Highlights: Phytoliths from plant genera and families present in North and South America today; from grasses, sampled broadly across the Poaceae phylogeny, and their closest living relatives; from soil samples of a range of vegetation types from Costa Rica and New Zealand.

Our extensive collection of modern pollen consists of over 6,000 slides and vials of pollen from a wide range of taxa from the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.

Highlight: Jane Gray’s modern reference collection focusing on taxa from temperate forests of North America and East Asia.

a young woman runs sediment through a filter
Photo: Cathy Morris/Burke Museum
Photo: Cathy Morris/Burke Museum

Our Research

We use plant fossils to elucidate evolutionary and ecological links between the abiotic environment, plants, and animals through geologic time. Our work is inherently integrative, involving paleontological fieldwork, experimental work on living plants, phylogenetic comparative methods, and geometric morphometrics and image analysis, among other things.

To make our research go farther and deeper, we collaborate with ecologists, geochemists, sedimentologists, vertebrate paleontologists, phylogeneticists, and plant physiologists.

Strömberg Lab

University of Washington Courses

Our collections and staff play an important role in undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Washington, particularly within the Department of Biology.

 

Questions & Answers

We’ve compiled answers to some of the most common questions we receive. Have another question that you need help with? Contact us.

The geology and paleontological collections are open to visiting researchers by appointment only. Interested researchers should contact us to make arrangements. 

The Geology & Paleontology Department will lend specimens to qualified institutions for exhibition, education or scholarly research. Specimens will not be lent to individuals except under special circumstances and with the approval of the Burke Museum Director.

Loan requests are considered on a case-by-case basis and approval is contingent upon such considerations as the structural stability of the specimens; security; exhibition or research conditions at the borrowing facility; insurance, crating, transportation, length of exhibition or research, and requirements for courier service. Please contact us for more information.

If you think you have found a fossil, the Geology & Paleontology Department can help identify it on a time-available basis. Please note that we will not purchase your fossil or take it away. If you wish, and if your fossil is of scientific interest, you may donate it to the museum. 

To get started, please fill out the Burke’s Online Identification Form

The Geology & Paleontology Department considers donations on a case-by-case basis. Of particular interest are fossils from the Pacific Northwest or those belonging to a taxonomic group or geologic age that is not well represented in the collection. Not all fossils are appropriate to donate, especially those without basic locality data or clear ownership details.

Please contact us for more information.

The Burke Museum retains the sole copyright for its holdings and all images depicting its holdings. Photographic images that are in the care of or are the property of the Burke Museum, or photographs, photocopies, or artistic renderings of collection items that are in the care of or are the property of the Burke Museum may not be used for commercial purposes without specific written permission.

Please contact us for more information.

We couldn’t do what we do without volunteers! Visit our Volunteer page for more information about Burke Museum volunteer opportunities and to view current openings.

Our Team & Contact

Meet the people within the Burke Museum Geology & Paleontology team.

Our Team

Have a general question?

Contact Us

Photo: Caroline Strömberg/Burke Museum
Photo: Caroline Strömberg/Burke Museum

Additional Resources

We've compiled several online resources from outside of the Burke Museum that may also be of interest.

a young woman cleans sediment to collect microfossils

Support Paleobotany

Your gift makes it possible! We couldn't do what we do without donor support for collections care, research and public outreach.

Photo: Courtesy Caroline Strömberg
Photo: Courtesy Caroline Strömberg