The oldest fossil forest in the world is found under the gray stone of a municipal highway department quarry in New York. A new study shares a snapshot of the traces of roots it left beneath the ridge and forest pool from 385 million years ago.

The site where specimens were found suggests that trees in this area during the Middle Denovian period have evolved earlier than previous studies expected. These findings would expand the knowledge of the evolutionary trajectory of trees during a critical period.

 World's Oldest Fossil Forest Found in Ancient Ecosystem in New York Quarry
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Artistic depiction of early Devonian land-flora.

Earliest Trees Could Colonize a Range of Environments

Mirage News reported that New York looked different during the Middle Devonian period. It was an era when trees began colonizing the almost barren land that experienced a semi-arid climate. At that time, the world's atmosphere has three to five times the level of carbon dioxide than the present day.

Khudadad, a doctoral candidate in biological sciences at Binghamton University, reconstructed what New York would have looked like 385 million years ago in his paper, titled "A Middle Devonian Vernal Pool Ecosystem Provides a Snapshot of the Earliest Forests" published in PLOS One.

The study focuses on the fossil forest site found in the Town of Cairo in Greene County, New York. It is where some of the oldest forests have lived, similar to those in Gilboa, Schoharie County, New York, that also made headlines last century. Binghamton's news release in 2019 mentioned that in 2012, a root system was discovered in Gilboa, which led to a renewed interest in the area.

Illustrators drew an example of the Gilboa forest dominated by Eospermatopteris, which are fern-like trees with bulbous bases and roots preserved in a sand cast. Based on the drawing, it can be inferred that the trees have adapted to river deltas, like those seen in mangroves.

Khudadad explains that most drawings of Middle Denovian often show environments that are similar to rainforests. However, he found that the Cairo site is somehow different. First, the fossil forest is older than the one in the Gilboa site. Secondly, it is on an abandoned river channel and a low spot where it would be filled with water to create a vernal pool in an arid climate.

More so, unlike the Gilboa site, the Cairo site has various trees, such as Eospermatopteris, the conifer-like Archaeopteris, and possibly the lycopsid tree known as club moss today.

Khudadad said that the research suggests that the earliest trees could colonize various environments and are not limited to wetland areas. It also can survive harsh environments of the expansive clays of the Catskill plains.

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Snapshot of the Oldest Fossil Forest in the World

Today, scientists have found traces of roots from these ancient trees. The quarry now appears like a giant stone microscope slide wherein some roots are measured to be 15 centimeters in diameter and form 11-meter-wide radial patterns.

Paleobotanist Christopher Berry, a team member at Cardiff University, told Science that the Cairo site lets them reconstruct the oldest fossil forest in the world that lived 385 million years ago.

Big Think reported that the appearance of Archaeopteris in the Cairo site reveals that it might take roots about 20 million years earlier than previously estimated. This will clarify the fossil record during the Devonian period and the Earth's ecology, atmospheric makeup, and geochemical cycles.

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