Fossilized trees from one of the world’s oldest forest have been discovered in Cairo, New York. The forest dates back 385 million years, five million years earlier than the previous oldest in the areathe Gilboa Fossil Forest.
Older fossilized forests have been found elsewhere. Earlier this year, researchers in China announced the discovery of a 400 million-year-old forest that covered an are the size of Grand Central Station.
The discovery helps scientists fill in gaps about how and when plants and trees emerged on Earth. Finding this forest, which had a varied flora and some surprisingly modern features, will help scientists better understand what impact the arrival of trees had on Earth and its natural cycles.
The first plants appeared on land around 470 million years ago. The first trees emerged during the Devonian period, which began 420 million years ago.
In 2007, a team led by William E. Stein, from Binghamton University, announced the earliest fossil stumps had been found in Gilboaand it was dubbed the world’s oldest forest. Since then, Stein and colleagues have been working in the Catskill region of New York: “An outstanding region for fossils of some of the Earth’s earliest forests,” he told Newsweek. Over the last 10 years, the team has been able to map the trees in Gilboa to show it was more diverse than previously thought.
The scientists then moved to a new location, Cairo, to study the soils there. “The objective is to further understand what the ancient forest was actually like,” he said. “Just as today, it appears to have harbored multiple sub-environments each with a unique collection of trees.”
In their study, published in Current Biology, the researchers document an extensive root system of trees dating to 385 million years ago. The trees had leaves and wooda common feature of seed plants, which would not appear for another 10 million years.
“This would have looked like a fairly open forest with small to moderate sized coniferous-looking trees with individual and clumped tree-fern like plants of possibly smaller size growing between the,” study co-author Chris Berry, from the U.K.’s Cardiff University, said in a statement.
The team found three rooting systems, suggesting different tree species made up the forest, occupying different parts of the landscape, just as today. One rooting system belonged to a tree called Eospermatopteris, which was similar to a palm tree. The next belonged to Lycopsida, which was thought to have first appeared far later, from about 360 million years ago.
The third was Archaeopteris, which was found to have a surprisingly modern rooting system that allowed it to continually expand and grow. “Archaeopteris identified by us at Cairo seems to directly point the way to what forests in subsequent periods will become. [They] were of moderate size, but definitely trees,” Stein said.
He said in other parts of the world, Archaeopteris may have grown to be “very large” with trunks over three feet in diameter. “The trees were also the first in the fossil record to have leavesthey looked very much like modern Ginkgo,” Stein said.
“What is surprising is just how modern Archaeopteris was with respect to its physiology,” he continued. “This feature had direct implications on how we should view the early forests and the impact the forests had going forward on many factors relating to nutrient cycling, weathering, atmospheric CO2 levels, climate and extinction.”
Stein said there is still far more to learn about these early forests. They now plan to continue working in the region and comparing what they find with other ancient fossil forests elsewhere in the world. “I’d like to know what happened historically, not just in the Catskills, but everywhere,” he said in a statement.