Re-opening the Phillips Coal Ball Collection treasure trove; unparalleled records from tropical Pangea during the late Paleozoic ice age

Cynthia V. Looy, Benjamin B. Muddiman, Ivo A. P. Duijnstee, Scott D. Elrick, William A. Dimichele

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


During the glacial phases of the late Paleozoic ice age, the recurring climate conditions in large parts of tropical Pangea repeatedly set the stage for lycopsid- and fern-dominated vegetation to become the sole creator of vast peat swamp landscapes. Landscapes that would eventually fuel our industrial revolution thanks to the coal they produced, and that left us with both the most detailed and the richest paleobotanical record in the history of life on land in the form of coal balls: carbonate nodules that preserved plant tissues in the peat in cellular detail.Vast amounts of coal ball data exist, based on microscopic analysis of acetate coal ball peels, each representing organs or tissues of the peat swamp plant community. The largest of such data collections was gathered by the late Dr Tom L. Phillips (UIUC), his former students and collaborators. During more than four decades, about 800,000 cm2 of coal ball peels have been microscopically investigated. For each cm2, plant taxa, plant organs, and tissue types have been identified and enumerated. In unparalleled detail, these data provide information on the (aut)ecology and evolution of the autogenic ecosystem engineers that formed the peat swamp landscapes that intermittently existed throughout much of the late Paleozoic. Moreover, they record environmentally driven floral changes in subsequent glacial phases, and the biotic consequences of climatic change on longer time scales. This dataset opens up opportunities to study the relationships between vegetation, and the taphonomic and Earth-system-level processes that simultaneously gave rise to, and were caused by massive peat deposition. Synthetic, multivariate analysis of the entire Phillips' dataset has not yet been undertaken, as a comprehensive composite dataset has never existed for analysis. In fact, most of the data only remained on 40-yr-old, first generation 8" floppy disks, or in analog form as computer printouts. Here we report on our efforts to curate and re-open the Phillips Coal Ball Collection, and to re-digitize and compile the comprehensive Phillips data set (see Muddiman et al.; this session).
Original languageEnglish (US)
StatePublished - 2020


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