Co-evolution of plants and soils: a comparative approach

We are studying modern soils and 400 million-year-old fossil soils to learn more about the early evolution of life on land.

Comparing ancient soil-like environments and modern analogues improves our understanding of how the first soils evolved alongside plants. 

We are developing approaches to characterise and analyse modern soils in order to:

  • recognise primitive soils in the early geological record
  • understand their impact on key earth systems through the weathering of minerals, the stabilisation of sediments, and the sequestration of carbon
  • understand how biological components of the first soils co-evolved, including fungi, plants, arthropods, algae and bacteria

Research focus

We are studying specimens of 400-million-year-old Rhynie chert in the Museum collections to learn more about ancient soil-like environments. These exceptionally well-preserved sediments from Scotland record associations between a diverse range of organisms. 

Early soils and modern analogues

The first soils on Earth were:

  • basic
  • mostly thin (millimetre and centimetre scale)
  • inhabited by numerous minute arthropods
  • composed of sediments stabilised by bacteria and diverse eukaryotes, including simple unicellular and filamentous forms and small rootless plants 

Our study of recent soils informs the wider understanding of fossil soils and their environments. We are drawing on the combined expertise of Museum biologists, palaeontologists and mineralogists.

Why study soils?

Soils are a key interface between organisms and the environment. They develop as land surfaces and are colonised by:

  • plants
  • fungi
  • animals
  • microorganisms

Complex interactions between soils and underlying rocks affect the development of major geochemical cycles, such as the carbon cycle and the evolution of life on land.

Interpreting early soils requires a better understanding of modern analogues, particularly soils associated with lichens, moss, liverwort and lycopod plant communities.


Get in touch to enquire about a research collaboration or find out more about our projects. 

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Rhynie chert

A sedimentary rock deposit from the area around Rhynie, a village in Scotland. The 400-million-year-old chert contains exquisitely preserved plant, fungus, lichen and animal fossils, providing evidence of the earliest known terrestrial ecosystem in the world. 

Carbon sequestration

A natural or artificial process in which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and stored in a reservoir. Carbon is absorbed naturally by plants through photosynthesis and stored for up to thousands of years in soil organic matter.


A group of invertebrate animals with jointed legs, a segmented body and an exoskeleton. The group includes insects, crustaceans, spiders, centipedes and trilobites.