Scientists have unearthed evidence of the world’s oldest forest in a quarry in the town of Cairo, New York. The fossilized forest, dating back nearly 400 million years, is believed to be 3 million years older than the previous world record holder. The discovery has been detailed in the latest issue of Current Biology.
An international team of researchers has so far mapped over 32,000 square feet of this fossilized forest. They found that the forest would have been quite open and sparse, with three main types of ancient trees representing most of the foliage. The forest would have provided a lush habitat for primitive insects and millipede-like creatures, emerging many years before birds and other large animals made their appearance.
Most of the trees in the forest would have belonged to the Archaeopteris genus, an ancestor of today’s modern trees. Archaeopteris resembled a pine tree, but would have grown hairy, fern-like fronds instead of bearing needles and had long woody roots. These trees are believed to be one of the first to capture and store carbon dioxide from the air with its leaves.
Other plants in the forest belong to a fossil plant group known as cladoxylopsids. This particular leafless tree would have short celery-like branches and shallow roots. The third main type of plants in the area is yet to be identified. The scientists say that all three types would have reproduced via spores and not seeds. They believe that the forest was ultimately wiped out by a flood based on the presence of fish fossils in the quarry.
Researchers said the recent findings provide new insight into the evolution of forests and how they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The trees date back to a point in time marking a transition between a planet with no forests and a planet that was largely covered in trees. The study’s lead author, Binghamton University Professor William Stein, said the team plans to continue looking at the Catskill region and compare their findings with fossil forests around the world.