World's Oldest Fossilized Forest Unearthed in New York

Posted on March 1, 2012

Nature The Lost World

Scientists have discovered the world's oldest fossilized forest. The fascinating site dates back about 385 million years ago. The finding was reported by scientists from Binghamton University and Cardiff University, and New York State Museum researchers, in the cover story of the March 1st issue of Nature.

William Stein, associate professor of biological sciences at Binghamton University, and one of the article's authors, says, "It was like discovering the botanical equivalent of dinosaur footprints. But the most exciting part was finding out just how many different types of footprints there were. The newly uncovered area was preserved in such a way that we were literally able to walk among the trees, noting what kind they were, where they had stood and how big they had grown."

The researchers believe the forest was a wetland environment in a tropical climate. It was filled with large Eospermatopteris trees that resembled weedy, hollow, bamboo-like plants, with roots that spread out in every direction. This root system allowed other plants to gain a foothold. Scrambling among these roots on the forest floor were aneurophytaleans. The researchers say aneurophytaleans act as ferns do today. The aneurophytaleans may have even climbed into the forest canopy as vines.

Fossilized Forest Drawing

The exciting discovery was made in the same area in Schoharie County where fossils of the Earth's oldest trees - the Gilboa stumps - were discovered in the 1850s, 1920 and again in 2010 and were brought to the New York State Museum. Scientists did not know what the trees connected to the stumps looked like for several decades. Linda VanAller Hernick, the State Museum's Paleontology collections manager, and Frank Mannolini, Paleontology collections technician, solved this mystery when they found fossils of the tree's intact crown in a nearby location in 2004, and a 28-foot-long trunk portion in 2005.

The discovery of the 385-million-year-old specimens was named one of the "100 top Science Stories of 2007" by Discover Magazine. Stein, Mannolini, Hernick, and Dr. Christopher M. Berry, a paleobotany lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales, co-authored a Nature article reporting that discovery, as well as the most recent one. Working in conjunction with Stein, Mannolini also developed a sketch of the ancient forest (above).

Following the discovery of the tree's crown, a thorough investigation was conducted by Stein and Christopher M. Berry, a paleobotany lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales and the other co-author of both Nature articles. They were able to determine that these trees actually resembled modern-day cycads or tree ferns, but were not related to either one.

In 2010, during ongoing repair of the Gilboa Dam, New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) engineers excavated infill from a quarry in Schoharie County. They agreed to allow researchers to re-examine the site where the fossils had been found when the dam was built in the 1920s. What they found this time was a large, substantially intact portion of the ancient forest horizon, complete with root systems.

The first glimpse of the unexpected complexity of this ancient forest came when Stein, Berry, Hernick and Mannolini found the remains of aneurophytaleans, the large scrambling tree-sized plants. The researchers say these plants were likely close ecological associates to the original trees, living among them on the forest floor like modern ferns, possibly scrambling into the forest canopy much as tropical vines do today. The aneurophytes are the first in the fossil record to show true "wood" and the oldest known group in the lineage that lead to modern seed plants.

Take a look:

Photo: Nature/Drawing: Frank Mannolini, New York State Museum