The discovery was published in the March 1 issue of Nature
Last week, scientists found evidence of a 300-million-year old forest below a coal mine in China. Now, remnants of an even older collection of trees and plants have been uncovered right here in New York. Researchers discovered the floor of a 385 million year old forest — believed to be the world’s oldest — while excavating a quarry upstate near the Gilboa Dam. The fossils and forest floor are so well preserved, scientists can see and study what looks to have been a complex ecosystem of plants, which could shed new light on the role of today’s forests and their impact on climate change.
Tree fossils of the Gilboa stumps have been studied since the 1850s when they were first discovered. More pieces were discovered in 1920 and then again in 2010, but for decades researchers had no idea what the trees actually looked like. Since 2000, several significant pieces of tree fossils have been discovered, but it wasn’t until last year when the researchers were allowed to examine the dam site again that they learned more about the entire complex ancient forest. A press release from the New York State Museum details the findings, noting that the researchers didn’t expect to find such an incredible the level of detail in the overall composition of the forest.
The most telling parts of this forest discovery are the root systems found deep below the quarry surface. By looking at these systems, which are essentially ancient tree maps, scientists can tell what kind of trees existed in this forest, where they stood, and how tall they grew. There are even traces of vines and canopies, suggesting this 125 mile inland area was once a seaside tropical marsh. Dr. William Stein, Associate Professor of Biology and Binghamton University is calling the discovery the “botanical equivalent of dinosaur footprints,” bringing us ever closer to the understanding of ecosystems of the ancient past.
The team believes that the site’s growth significantly impacted the planet by consuming large amounts of carbon dioxide, which led to a global cooling. “Trees probably changed everything,” said Stein. “Not only did these emerging forests likely cause important changes in global patterns of sedimentation, but they may have triggered a major extinction in fossil record.”
“The complexity of the Gilboa site can teach us a lot about the original assembly of our modern day ecosystems,” said Stein. “As we continue to understand the role of forests in modern global systems, and face potential climate change and deforestation on a global scale, these clues from the past may offer valuable lessons for managing our planet’s future.”