Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Oldest Forest On Earth

One of the Gilboa stumps
Recently, I reported on an ancient forest preserved in the 298 million year old ash fields of Northern China. It was part of a global forest which stretched across the Carboniferous super-continent of Pangaea. However all forests start off as small, isolated clumps of trees. The very first forests on Earth gave rise to the one which covered the Carboniferous Earth are very mysterious. We have found broken fragments of what may be tree trunks and large ferns, but never large communities of pre-Carboniferous plants.

Palaeontologists from Binghamton University, Cardiff University and New York State Museum have found fossils which may be from the first ever forest on Earth. The recent discovery was made very close to the world famous Gilboa stumps in Schoharie County. Discovered in the 1850s, they remained a complete mystery until Linda VanAller Hernick, the State Museum's palaeontology collections manager, and Frank Mannolini, palaeontology collections technician, unearthed fossils of the tree's intact crown in a nearby location in 2004, and a 28-foot-long trunk portion in 2005. They were given the name of Eospermatopteris

A reconstruction of Eospermatopteris
In 2010, ongoing repairs on the Gilboa Dam necessitated the excavation of material from a nearby landfill site. Fossils had been found there before and the engineers allowed researchers to examine the material before they commenced digging. Dr William Stein, Christopher.M.Berry and the duo of Hernick and Mannolini found the remains of tree-sized plants which they identified as aneurophytes. This primitive group of plants were the first to evolve wood, making them an important part of the evolutionary history of plants.

They found large sections of intact root systems of Eospermatopteris. A full examination of the site showed them what they were truly looking at: an intact forest horizon which has survived underground for 385 million years. 'It was like discovering the botanical equivalent of dinosaur footprints,' said Dr Stein. They also came across a lycopsid fossil. The lycopsids were a group of tree ferns which became extinct towards the end of the Carboniferous some 299 million years ago.

This discovery is even older than a previous discovery in Naples, New York. The total area of forest covered was 1500 square metres, even larger than the Carboniferous version. discovered in the ash fields of Mongolia. The trees were around 10 to 15 metres in height. They were hollow with distinct similarities to bamboo stems. The major difference was that they existed in a swamp during the middle Devonian some 385 million years ago, making it the oldest known and possibly the first ever forest on Earth.