A group of scientists from Binghamton University discovered the world’s oldest fossilized forest in an abandoned quarry near Cairo, New York (eastern United States).
The 385 million year old rocks contain the fossilized woody roots of dozens of ancient trees. The finding marks a turning point in the history of the Earth.
When trees developed these roots, helped extract carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and enclose it, radically changing the planet’s climate and leading to the atmosphere we know today.
The quarry floor, about half the size of a football field, represents a horizontal cut across the ground, just below the fossilized forest surface.
“You’re walking through the roots of ancient trees,” Berry said. “Standing on the surface of the quarry we can rebuild the living forest that surrounds us in our imagination.”
The fossils also revealed a tree called Archaeopteris, something like a pine, but instead of needles, the branches and trunk were adorned with fern leaves, giving it an almost hairy appearance.
“IT’S NOT SOMETHING WE CAN IMMEDIATELY RECOGNIZE AS A MODERN TREE,”BERRY SAID.
Archaeopteris also had huge woody roots, which had not previously been seen in the forests of this era.
The fozilized and prehistoric forest would have been scarce in wildlife. The first dinosaurs would only appear 150 million years later and there were still no vertebrates on earth or birds.
The main occupants of the forest were creatures similar to millipedes, called myriapods, and some other primitive insects that may or may not have begun to fly.
“IT’S FUNNY TO THINK OF A FOREST WITHOUT BIG ANIMALS. NO SONG OF BIRDS. JUST THE WIND IN THE TREES, ” SAID BERRY.
This makes the fossilized forest of Cairo about 2 or 3 million years older than the forest in Gilboa, located also in New York State about 40 km from the Cairo site.
BEFORE AND AFTER IN THE ECOLOGY
The appearance of forests is one of the most transformative events in the history of the Earth, marking permanent changes in ecology, atmospheric levels of CO2 and climate.
Before the forests, the CO2 levels were much higher and the Earth’s climate was warmer without ice layers. At the end of the Devonian period, about 350 million years ago, there were glaciers and, shortly after, the polar ice became permanent.
However, there’ve been a few fossil remains of early trees that scientists only had a hazy idea of which trees dominated what habitats, how root systems altered soil chemistry, and how forests opened up new ecological niches for animals.
- Today, forests cover approximately 30% of the planet and are being cut down on a large scale.
- Between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 502,000 square miles of forest, according to the World Bank.
- Deforestation could lead to profound changes in the world’s ecosystem and climate.