The remnants of the oldest known forest have been identified in a New York quarry. The fossils are 386 million years old, and studying them could teach us more about how Earth’s climate has changed over time.
“Charles was just walking across the floor of the quarry and he noticed these big root structures which are very distinctive” says Christopher Berry at Cardiff University in the UK, referring to Charles Ver Straeten at the New York State Museum. Ver Straeten discovered the fossils in 2008 near Cairo in the Catskills region of New York.
Three types of trees were found in the forest. One of them, a member of the Archaeopteris genus, which is characterised by long roots, had roots stretching up to 12 metres. These trees are similar to modern coniferous trees and were the first known to have evolved flat green leaves.
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New York is well stocked with old tree fossils because the state lies on an ancient mountain range, which buried these trees by shedding sediment through natural erosion by rainfall and glaciation. The latest fossil find was just 40 kilometres away from what was previously considered the oldest forest in the world, beating the record by at least two million years.
These trees played an important role in the development of life on Earth, helping to cool the planet. “All these trees appearing was having an effect of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” says Berry. “By the end of the Devonian period [360 million years ago], the amount of carbon dioxide was coming down to what we know it is today.”
Studying the fossils could help us with modern climate change, says Sandy Hetherington at University of Oxford. “Understanding how this happened in the past is crucial for predicting what will happen in the future in light of climate change and deforestation,” she says.
Journal reference: Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.11.067