Scientists have discovered the world’s oldest forest in an abandoned quarry near Cairo, New York. The 385 million-year-old rock contains wood-root fossils of dozens of ancient trees. The discovery marks a turning point in Earth’s history. As trees evolve these roots, they can absorb carbon dioxide from the air and seal it, fundamentally altering the Earth’s climate and creating what is known today.
Photo credit: CHARLES VER STRAETEN
The site is so special that christopher Berry, an ancient botanist at Cardiff University in the UK, said the quarry’s ground was about half the size of an American football field and represented a horizontal cut through the soil beneath the surface of the ancient forest. “Standing on the ground in the quarry, we can imagine rebuilding the surrounding forest. Berry said.
Berry and his colleagues first discovered the site in 2009 and are still analyzing the fossils. Some petrified roots, with a diameter of 15 cm, form a horizontal radiation pattern 11 meters wide where the trunk once stood. The team recently reported in Current Biology that they appear to belong to the genus, a tree with large wooden roots and leafy wood branches that are somehow related to modern trees.
Prior to that, Berry said, the oldest genus fossils were no more than 365 million years old, and it was unclear when the tree evolved to feature generational features.
Patricia Gensel, an paleobotanist at the University of North Carolina who was not involved in the study, said the site showed that the genus had done it 20 million years ago. “The size of these roots really changes the landscape. Even 20 years ago, she added, researchers believed that trees with such large and complex roots did not evolve in the early days of the geological age.
Kevin Boyce, a geoscientist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, says trees like this have a big impact on the ancient climate. Deep roots penetrate and break down rocks inside and outside the soil. Geologists call the process “weathered” and trigger chemical reactions that convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into carbonate ions in groundwater. The carbon eventually flows into the sea and is locked into limestone.
As a result of weathering and its knock-on effects, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dropped to modern levels shortly after the emergence of wood forests. Tens of millions of years ago, the number was 10 to 15 times what it is today. Some studies have shown that the removal of so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has directly contributed to the continued rise in oxygen levels, which by 300 million years ago amounted to about 35 percent. This, in turn, may have led to the evolution of the giant insects of the time, some with wings up to 70 cm wide and possibly living in ancient forests.
Trees that grew in the ancient forest tens of millions of years later also had an indirect effect on the modern climate. Berry has previously written about how the fossil remains of these forests formed coal and contributed to the industrial revolution sontoicrevolution son in Europe and North America.
This isn’t the first time Berry and his colleagues have explored the pristine forest. In the 19th century, researchers discovered a fossil forest containing 382 million-year-old ancient tree fossils in Gilbo, New York, about 40 kilometers from the site. But in 2010, Berry and colleagues discovered that the roots of the Gilbo Forest were more primitive trees, possibly related to ferns and wedge-leaf plants, which did not produce woody roots with great weathering potential.
This means that the trees that grow at the Site in Cairo are innovators. “The leaves of trees can produce shadows and have a large root system, which was a modern tree that didn’t exist before. Berry said.