In 2019 the earliest fossilised trees, dating back 386 million years, were found at an abandoned quarry in Cairo, New York State. They are thought to be two or three million years older than what was previously the world's oldest forest at Gilboa, also in New York State.
Trees would have been home to primitive insects about 150 million years before dinosaurs evolved!!
"It's a very ancient forest from the beginnings of the time where the planet was turning green and forests were becoming a normal part of the Earth's system," Dr Berry.
It's understood the forest was wiped out by a flood. The researchers have found fish fossils on the surface of the quarry.
When these trees evolved these roots, they helped pull carbon dioxide from the air and lock it away, radically shifting the planet’s climate and leading to the atmosphere we know today.
“These fossil forests are extremely rare. 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.” Chris Berry from Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences.
These ancient trees would appear alien to the modern eye. A walker would have encountered clusters of Cladoxylopsid, a 10m-tall leafless tree with a swollen base, short branches resembling sticks of celery and shallow, ribbon-like roots (see image below for an artist's rendering of the 380 million-year-old forest at Gilboa, New York. Image: © Frank Mannolini).
The prehistoric forest would have been sparse on wildlife. The first dinosaurs would only appear 150 million years later and there were no vertebrates on land yet and no birds - can you imagine the silence?
The emergence of forests is one of the most transformative events in Earth’s history, marking permanent changes to ecology, atmospheric CO2 levels and climate. Before forests, CO2 levels were far higher and the Earth’s climate was hotter with no ice caps.
The point in time that the fossil trees date to marks a transition between a planet with no forests and a planet that is largely covered in trees. How does this help us understand the planet's past? “Understanding how this happened in the past is crucial for predicting what will happen in the future in light of climate change and deforestation,” says Sandy Hetherington at University of Oxford.
Today, forests cover about 30% of the planet and are being cleared on a massive scale. Between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 502,000 square miles of forest, according to the World Bank – an area larger than South Africa – and about 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been cleared over the past 50 years. Even without accounting for the impact of burning fossil fuels, deforestation could lead to profound changes to the world’s ecosystem and climate.
Inspired by these ancient forests? Plant trees today here.
(Above map and some words are from a Guardian article)