Scientists have discovered what they believe is the world’s oldest known forest — a set of 386-million-year-old fossilized root systems found in an old sandstone quarry in the Catskill Mountains in New York. The researchers say the new site is evidence that forests developed 2 to 3 million years earlier than previously thought. The findings were published recently in the journal Current Biology.
The site, located in the town of Cairo, New York, has three unique root systems — evidence that ancient forests were comprised of several different tree species. The first species scientists identified was a palm tree-like plant called Eospermatopteris, which has short roots that lived for a year or two before dying and growing new ones, according to a press release. They also found fossils of a tree called Archaeopteris, which shares several traits with modern conifers. Trees in Archaeopteris genus later became the first to evolve flat, green leaves, New Scientist reported.
“Archaeopteris seems to reveal the beginning of the future of what forests will ultimately become,” William Stein, a biologist at Binghamton University in New York and lead author of the new study, said in a statement. “Based on what we know from the body fossil evidence of Archaeopteris prior to this, and now from the rooting evidence that we’ve added at Cairo, these plants are very modern compared to other Devonian plants. Although still dramatically different than modern trees, Archaeopteris nevertheless seems to point the way toward the future of forests.”
Stein and his colleagues also discovered evidence of “scale trees” belonging to the class Lycopsida — trees only thought to exist during the Carboniferous Period millions of years later, at the end of the Devonian Period.
At the time this ancient forest existed, no birds or vertebrates lived on land. Dinosaurs wouldn’t appear for another 150 million years. Instead, the forest was likely home to millipede-like bugs and other insects. “It’s funny to think of a forest without large animals,” Chris Berry, a paleobotanist at Cardiff University and coauthor of the new study, told The Guardian. “No birdsong. Just the wind in the trees.”
The evolution of forests played a critical role in shaping the world’s climate and ecology. They captured carbon dioxide, bringing levels down similar to modern times, and helped to significantly cool the planet. Scientists say this latest discovery could help provide clues about the relationship between deforestation and modern climate change.