World's Oldest Forest Found in New York Mountains
Sun, April 11, 2021

World's Oldest Forest Found in New York Mountains

Archeologists sifting through fossil soils in a mountain in New York have identified the remnants of the oldest known forest in the world / Photo by: Doug Kerr via Flickr

 

Archeologists sifting through fossil soils in a mountain in New York have identified the remnants of the oldest known forest in the world. Researchers say the extensive root system of the ancient forest provides evidence that the known transition toward forests began earlier in the Devonian Period than previously believed. They add that studying the remnants could help them further understand how Earth's climate changed over time.


An Extensive Forest Network

Found 25 miles away from the site previously believed to have the world's oldest forests, the ancient root system consists of 386 million-year-old primitive trees in the Catskill region near Cairo.

Some of the fossilized roots were six inches in diameter and form 5-foot-wide horizontal radial patterns that spread out from where the vertical tree trunks used to stand. The ancient tree network would have extended to Pennsylvania and then to states beyond, according to British online newspaper the Daily Mail.

The discovery provides "much deeper insight into the transition of the Earth into a forested planet," said scientists from Binghamton University. They, along with researchers from the New York State Museum and Cardiff University, led an international tea to map over 32,000 square feet of forest.

The trees that once stood on the extensive forest were estimated to have grown up to 65 feet tall and had trunks up to five feet in diameter, the scientists found. They also noted the visibility of fish fossils on the surface, which suggests a flood may have wiped out the area's lush vegetation.

Chris Berry, a researcher from Cardiff University, said they were surprised to find plants originally thought to have a "mutually exclusive habitat" thriving in the same area.

"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," Berry said, as per the Daily Mail.

According to the online newspaper, the forest thrived long before the era of dinosaurs—about 419 to 359 million years ago during the Devonian period (or the "age of fish").

Types of Trees in the Oldest Forest

New York is home to an abundance of old tree fossils since it lies on an ancient mountain range. This mountain range buried ancient trees by shedding sediment through natural erosion fro rainfall and glaciation.

Before this extensive forest network, the Gilboa fossil forest held the record for having the oldest trees in the fossil record dating around 385 million years ago. The ancient forest in Catskill beat that record by at least two million years, the New Scientist reports.

The New Scientist is a London-based weekly English-language magazine covering all aspects of science and technology.

It adds that there are three types found in the recently discovered forest fossil; primitive fern-like plants known as cladoxylopsids, a member of the Archaeopteris genus, and an unknown type. The cladoxylopsids are known for their lack of classic flat green leaves of their modern cousins, while the Archaeopteris is characterized for their long roots that stretch up to 11 meters.

While the third type remains unknown, the researchers believe they could be lycopods. Lycopods are the oldest surviving vascular plant division, with its earliest fossils being traced back 428 to 410 million years ago.

All these ancient trees held an important role in the development of life on Earth and cool down the planet in its early years, the New Scientist reports.

"All these trees appearing was having an effect of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere," explained Berry. "By the end of the Devonian period [360 million years ago], the amount of carbon dioxide was coming down to what we know it is today."

New York is home to an abundance of old tree fossils since it lies on an ancient mountain range. This mountain range buried ancient trees by shedding sediment through natural erosion fro rainfall and glaciation / Photo by: Hans Hillewaert via Wikimedia Commons

 

Understanding the Ancient Climate

Investigating the fossilized forest may help scientists understand the climate millions of years ago. Geoscientist Kevin Boyce from Stanford University said trees similar to those in Catskill had a major effect on the ancient climate.

The trees' deep roots penetrate and break down the rocks in and below the soil. According to Science Magazine, this process is known as "weathering," which stimulates chemical reactions that pull carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere to turn it into carbonate ions in groundwater. Those carbonate ions then run off into the sea and are locked as limestone.

Science Magazine, also known as Science, is a peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is among the world's top academic journals since its publication in 1880.

It adds that the weathering and knock-on effects partly accounted for the drop of CO2 levels to modern levels soon after the emergence of forests. Some studies also suggest that the CO2 drop was the direct cause of a sustained rise in oxygen levels as the atmosphere contained about 35% oxygen by 300 million years ago.

The ancient Catskill trees also had an indirect effect on the modern climate. In one of his previous studies, Berry wrote about how the fossilized remains of these forests made up the coal that fueled the Industrial Revolution.

Investigating the fossilized forest may help scientists understand the climate millions of years ago. Geoscientist Kevin Boyce from Stanford University said trees similar to those in Catskill had a major effect on the ancient climate / Photo by: Daniel Chase via Wikimedia Commons