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‘World’s oldest forest’ found in abandoned quarry

Fossils of an extensive network of trees are believed to be 386 million years old.

The archaeopteris root system at the Cairo fossil forest site in New York (Handout)
The archaeopteris root system at the Cairo fossil forest site in New York (Handout)

By Adam Hale, PA Wales Correspondent

Scientists have uncovered the world’s oldest forest dating back 386 million years in an abandoned New York quarry, according to a new study.

Fossils of a network of trees believed to be wiped out by a flood were found in the sandstone quarry in the town of Cairo, throwing new light on the evolution of trees and their role in shaping the world.

A team led by scientists from Cardiff University, Binghamton University in New York, as well as New York State Museum, have mapped out 3,000 square metres of the forgotten forest in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains in the Hudson Valley.

It is believed to be around two or three million years older than what was previously thought to be the world’s oldest forest in Gilboa, also in New York State, some 25 miles away.

The Cairo forest is believed to be older than Gilboa’s because its fossils were lower down in the sequence of rocks.

The scientists say the extensive network of trees, which would have spread from New York all the way into Pennsylvania and beyond, was possibly wiped out by a flood due to the many fish fossils found on the surface of the quarry.

The forest would have included at least two types of trees – cladoxylopsids, primitive tree-fern-like plants, which lacked flat green leaves, and Archaeopteris, which had a conifer-like woody trunk and frond-like branches with green flattened leaves.

A single example of an unidentified third type of tree was also found, which which could possibly have been a lycopod, with all the trees reproducing using spores rather than seeds.

A “spectacular” and extensive network of roots more than 11 metres in length were also found which belonged to the Archaeopteris trees.

The new findings were published on Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

Co-author of the study Dr Chris Berry, from Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, said: “It is surprising to see plants which were previously thought to have had mutually exclusive habitat preferences growing together on the ancient Catskill delta.

“This would have looked like a fairly open forest with small to moderate sized coniferous-looking trees with individual and clumped tree-fern like plants of possibly smaller size growing between them.

“In order to really understand how trees began to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, we need to understand the ecology and habitats of the very earliest forests, and their rooting systems.

“These remarkable findings have allowed us to move away from the generalities of the importance of large plants growing in forests, to the specifics of which plants, in which habitats, in which types of ecology were driving the processes of global change.

“We have literally been able to drill into the fossil soil between the trees and are now able to investigate geochemical changes to the soil with our colleagues at Sheffield University.

“We are really getting a handle on the transition of the Earth to a forested planet.”

PA

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