Researchers found fossilized root systems of ancient trees – from what’s now Earth’s oldest known forest – near Cairo, New York. They looked “surprisingly modern,” the scientists said.
The research team, which published their findings Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Current Biology, shows a transition to forests as we know them today earlier than previously thought.
The fossilized forest is near the town of Cairo in the same region where a similar forest was, until now, believed to be the oldest on record. The Gilboa forest was discovered in 2012 by the same group of researchers and is only about 30 miles away. The two sites are between 2 million and 3 million years apart in terms of age, according to the Guardian.
“These fossil forests are extremely rare,” Chris Berry, one of the study’s authors and a senior lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, told the newspaper. “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.”
Both forests are from the Devonian Period, about 140 million years before dinosaurs first appeared, when the planet’s ecosystems were rapidly transforming.
“The Devonian Period represents a time in which the first forest appeared on planet Earth,” William Stein, lead author of the study and an emeritus professor of biological science at Binghamton University, said in a news release.
The changes were similar to what we see happening today in Earth’s atmosphere, but in reverse, Stein told Vice.
“The origin of big trees and forests seems to be coincident in time with some dramatic changes in the Devonian ecosystem and climate,” Stein said.
“In particular, there’s been pretty clear evidence that there was a drawdown of CO2 levels from the atmosphere during this time,” causing global cooling, he added. “This is important because we’re, in a sense, looking at the opposite trending effects currently with people, deforestation and global warming.”
The forest sits in an abandoned quarry and includes three different types of tree families. The most interesting one is known as Archaeopteris, which Stein called “strikingly advanced for its time” and could mark “the beginning of the future of modern forests.”
“This was a large plant that had modern-looking secondary tissues – basically wood – and it was the first major player that we understand actually had leaves,” he said. “It’s essentially identical to what you would expect to see today in modern conifers or flowering and seed plants as a whole.”
The forest was alive not only before dinosaurs, but also before birds and before vertebrates lived on land, according to the Guardian. Primitive insects were its primary inhabitants.
“It’s funny to think of a forest without large animals,” Berry told the newspaper. “No birdsong. Just the wind in the trees.”