“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)
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.
Gorgeous image of a Glossopteris leaf, photo taken by and courtesy of Aviwe Matiwane.
“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.
Learn more about how plants made our planet habitable for so many life forms. Video by Dr. Nathalie Nagalingum at the California Academy of Sciences.
“Because there are very few palaeobotanists in South Africa, we’re still lagging behind in our research,” she explained. “So my work is actually going to be a huge contribution as well in identifying Glossopteris.”
To put that into perspective, there are less than 5 employed paleobotanists in the entire African continent. “Most people,” she wrote in an email, “are interested in vertebrate palaeontology or hominids.”
Edna P. Plumstead, from the University of Witwatersrand, expanded knowledge of Glossopteris by describing its unique seed-bearing organs in South Africa in the 1950s. More recently, Dr. Rose Prevec, Aviwe’s PhD supervisor as well as Department Head/Curator of the Albany Museum in Grahamstown, has co-authored papers further defining this plant.
“My study site,” Aviwe continued, “is in Ouberg Pass (near Sutherland) where I am describing the new flora and this will contribute towards the greater goal of establishing a reliable biostratigraphic framework for Glossopteris floras of the Permian of the Karoo Basin.”
Ouberg Pass, South Africa; photo courtesy of Aviwe Matiwane.
Aviwe Matiwane in the field, South Africa; photo courtesy of Aviwe Matiwane.
“The first year of my PhD, I actually did a HUGE review of the Glossopteris papers [published to that point]. I looked at the features that people have used, and the common thing that I have noticed is that [scientists are not considering all of the features of Glossopteris in their taxonomic descriptions]. Maybe these leaves are the same; maybe [this represents only a few] species instead of the hundreds that you find. What if there was hybridization? What if it’s a variation of the same species? If you look at trees these days, you’ll see that most of the leaves are different. Some features will be different according to how much sunlight they get.”
“Some of the taxonomic decisions that have been made on these Glossopteris leaves have been based on a small number of features. People would use, maybe let’s say, the leaf length and the leaf width together and there have been some qualitative descriptions of the leaf. My research is measuring EVERYTHING. It’s the first time that this has ever been used. I’m measuring all the features of the leaf. And I’m also doing the qualitative as well, just to see if our qualitative discrimination will match the quantitative descriptions and everything.”
Or, in other words, “My work considers new approaches involving morphometric and ecological techniques with the aim of establishing a standardised methodology for the leaf taxonomy of this group.”
Her goal is to consolidate all of these features, clarify the Glossopteris taxonomy, and make it accessible to future research in a database. It is a staggering amount of work.
Aviwe Matiwane; photo courtesy of Aviwe Matiwane.
Aviwe attributes her love of plants–and animals–to her grandfather. Describing him as a ‘self-taught ethnobotanist,’ he would describe the plants they encountered on the many walks into the woods that they took together when she was a child.
Many people within Lower Nqwarha, the rural village in which she grew up—indeed, even people within her own family—didn’t understand her passion or her academic pursuits. She described some of the painful ways this set her apart, made her the object of bullying, and how she had to struggle to find her own way.
Despite pressure to conform to others’ expectations, “I’ve always been my own individual,” she said.
“It’s been hard. There’s so many challenges, being black and female. I’ve had problems in my family, and I’ve had problems from outside. The outside problems have not impacted me that much; they are problems that we all face as women in science. Not just black women, but, I mean, WOMEN. Across sciences and other professionals as well. Being a woman is a struggle. But it’s changing.”
“Also, being in a field where it’s mostly dominated by whites, particularly white males, it’s very difficult. There’s potential for change. I’m going to work and just show them that I actually do have the potential to be here. I’m meant to be here.”
While obtaining her Masters in Forest Plant Biodiversity within South Africa’s Eastern Cape, she decided she needed a new path. Part of her studies involved being a mentor to first-year students. She was the only person responsible for mentoring 400 other students. She explained that part of what she did was to help students understand studies in their own language. South Africa has 11 official languages, of which she speaks 5 (four of them are Xhosa, English, Afrikaans and isiZulu).
Her supervisor was a professor in the Geology Department, and she was to meet with him biweekly. On her first visit to his office, she marveled at the footprints—trace fossils, she would later learn–lining the walls the entire way up the stairs. At the very top, she described more fossil displays, which, as his previous meeting was running late, she stopped to ponder and read about. After their meeting, she expressed interest and asked him who was responsible for those fossils, which is when he suggested connecting with Dr. Rose Prevec.
Aviwe emailed Dr. Prevec as soon as possible. They met; Dr. Prevec took her out into the field; and Aviwe was hooked.
“I just thought, ‘You know what, this is what I want to do,’” she described over Skype. “I just fell in love with paleo and her enthusiasm as well!”
She applied for and successfully won a scholarship (a bursary) to do PhD work at Rhodes University.
“The DST-NSF Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences (CoE) and PAST award bursaries to various students working on projects extending from periods deep time to our recent past,” Aviwe explained in an email. “Their funding also extends to support research and operational costs The two funding bodies in Palaeosciences give financial support to people registered from Honours and all through to Post Doctorate level. Palaeosciences is an interdisciplinary field, the CoE Palaeo and PAST aim at bridging the shortage of scarce skills in South Africa and also aim at producing world leading researchers.”
Around the time of our Skype conversation, she and her colleagues had been in the field collecting an enormous amount of fossils, many of them insects. Because so many Glossopteris leaves have feeding traces from extinct insects, these fossil insects might help connect the dots on who was eating those leaves millions of years ago.
When asked what was the most exciting fossil she’d found so far, she wrote, “Squamella which is a Glossopteris fructification (fertile structure) genus. It is rare, and from our knowledge it has only been recorded in Australia by Mary White in 1964. We have just discovered some near Sutherland, a first record for South Africa, this is very exciting news! Also, there is a fossil insect site that was discovered by my supervisor, outside Sutherland, where we have collected hundreds of insects. Some are probably new to science and a first record for South Africa. This is such an amazing time in our lab we have so much to share with the Palaeoscience community.”
“We have more insect fossils in our museum than have been collected in the Permian of South Africa. Within a span of three weeks of hard work, we collected more than has been collected in years of research throughout the country. So, just imagine that! Our site is actually very special.”
“I collect my own material, with the group and everything, and then when we get to the lab, we actually have to prepare the slabs. Some of the insects or the leaves will still be covered with rock and sediment. So you have to prep those before we actually do the photography. I’ve taken all the photographs myself; I had to prep all the slabs myself.”
During her PhD work at Rhodes University, she has been one of ten national finalists for FameLab–an international competition in which finalists present their subject in 3 minutes without any props; she has co-authored an article for The Conversation; has spoken to numerous local schools; and has been interviewed by bloggers, local papers and radio stations.
“I want more people in the field,” she said. “I want more people to actually learn about what I’m doing. I take every opportunity—whoever wants to know, I make time. And I sit down. And I talk to them. I go to schools in the rural areas and actually talk [with the students in those schools]. I tell them: this is what I do. This is something that you might be interested in! Because you never know. Maybe you might have the next big person in the field you’re talking to just for five minutes. Maybe you might inspire someone to get into this field.”
Photo of fossil Glossopteris, courtesy of Aviwe Matiwane
Screenshot of a tweet from Aviwe Matiwane (@udemischa) in June 2020, artwork by Ida (@ncdraw).
- COVID-19 Check in: with PhD Student, paleobotanist and ecologist (Plant detective in short), Aviwe Matiwane, KAYA-FM
- Finding the Fountain of Youth, Kimberleigh Tommy (13+ minute video about the history of apartheid in South Africa)
- Decolonizing Science Writing in South Africa by Sibusiso Biyela
- What happens if you have no word for ‘dinosaur’ by Christine Ro
- Matiwane, A. Famelab Presentation on Glossopteris. NRF SAASTA, Youtube.com. 2017.
- Matiwane, A, Prevec, R. Plant fossils have a lot to teach us about Earth’s history. The Conversation. March 8, 2018.
- Mcloughlin, S. Glossopteris – insights into the architecture and relationships of an iconic Permian Gondwanan plant. Journal of the Botanical Society of Bengal. 2011.
- Mcloughlin, S; Prevec, R. The architecture of Permian glossopterid ovuliferous reproductive organs. Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology. 2019. 43:4, 480-510, DOI: 10.1080/03115518.2019.1659852
- Morris, JL; Puttick, MN; Clark, JW; Edwards, D; Kenrick, P; Pressel, S; Wellman, CH; Yang, Z; Schneider, H; Donoghue, PCJ. Timescale of early land plant evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Mar 2018, 115 (10) E2274-E2283; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1719588115
- Nagalingum, N. How Did Plants Change Our Planet? California Academy of Sciences website.
- Prevec, R. The Life of Coal: Ancient Forests That Power Our Nation. Quest. 2012.
- Introduction to the Glossopteridales. University of California Museum of Paleontology website.
Avie, my friend, THANK YOU for your generosity in connecting with me multiple times for this blog post, especially during such a busy time in your life. It was so much fun speaking and laughing with you. It was a great honor to learn more about your research and the path to your PhD. I cannot wait to learn what your research reveals!