Botanic Superlatives: The Oldest Forest

Botanic Superlatives: The Oldest Forest

March 9, 2012
Photo by: Frank Mannolini, New York State Museum; a reconstruction of the 385 million-year old Gilboa forest

We're only two months in, and already it's proving to be a year of ancient botanic superlatives. First, there was the resurrection of a 32,000 year-old campion flower. Now, scientists have excavated a 385 million-year old forest, believed to be the world's oldest. Discovered in a quarry roughly forty miles from Albany, the ancient forest paints a new picture of upstate New York: a tropical marshland of vines, canopies, and tree ferns—at least, a very long time ago, when trees were evolving to form the planet's first forests.  

"It was like discovering the botanical equivalent of dinosaur footprints," said Dr. William Stein, associate professor of biology at Binghamton University, and author of a cover article in the journal Nature. Most extraordinary were the details embedded in the minerals—extensive root systems of several plants. The fossilized forest floor became an ancient botanic map—scientists could essentially visualize the mid-Devonian era forest. "The newly uncovered area was preserved in such a way that we were literally able to walk among the trees, noting what kind they were, where they had stood and how big they had grown," Stein said. The forest was far more complex than they had imagined. 

They discovered a short list of forest dwellers discovered. A large tree named Eospermatopteris—meaning "ancient seed fern"— with hollow stalks like bamboo, and fronds like cycads dominated the area. Its roots would have radiated across the forest floor, offering other plants a boost. Scrambling over these roots were the aneurophytaleans, large tree-sized plants that resembled ferns, and possibly climbed the canopy as vines. They are also the first in the fossil record to exhibit true "wood." Finally, the Lycopsida, or club mosses, filled the undergrowth with patterns of low growing pine-like arms.

For those of you familiar with paleobotanical landmarks, you may recognize the area as the site of the famous Gilboa stumps—fossils from the world's oldest trees. First discovered in the 1850s, the fossils were named in the 1920s—a common name after the adjacent town, Gilboa, and the scientific name Eospermatopteris—but no one knew what the trees looked like. Excavations in 2004 and 2005 offered a tree crown and a trunk, and, finally, this most recent discovery has helped scientists understand the forest ecology, the significance of which remains relevant today. “The complexity of the Gilboa site can teach us a lot about the original assembly of our modern day ecosystems,” said Stein. “As we continue to understand the role of forests in modern global systems, and face potential climate change and deforestation on a global scale, these clues from the past may offer valuable lessons for managing our planet’s future.” The first piece of this puzzle—a Gilboa stump—is now on display at the New York State Museum, and the Gilboa Museum always has fossils to see. New Englanders, it's time for a road trip! 


Nature, March 1 2012

Anna Laurent is a writer and photographer. Her work explores how we look at plants, and how those plants behave.