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Plants to forest: scientists explore an ancient ecosystem

A recent fossil find has illuminated the landscape of one of Earth's earliest forests. Scientists are working to understand the dynamics of the ancient ecosystem.

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A vine hanging onto the wall of a barn makes an interesting still life. Scientists have unearthed an ancient vine among other trees in a fossilized forest.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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One of the earliest forests in the world was home to towering palmlike trees and woody plants that crept along the ground like vines, a new fossil find reveals.

The forest, which stood in what is now Gilboa, N.Y., was first unearthed in a quarry in the 1920s. But now, a new construction project has revealed for the first time the forest floor as it stood 380 million years ago in the Devonian period.

"For the first time, we actually have a map of about 1,200 square meters (12,900 square feet) of a Devonian forest," said study researcher Chris Berry, a scientist at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom. "We know which plants were growing where in this forest, and how they were interacting."

Fossil forest

The fossilized forest floor contained three types of enormous plants. The first, known as the Gilboa tree or Eospermatopteris, was once thought to be the only type of tree in the forest; quarry workers have been carting specimens out of the area since the fossil plants were first discovered. This tree was tall and looked like today's palm trees, with a crown of branches at the very top.

But an even stranger specimen lurked in this ancient forest. Amid the towering Gilboa trees were woody creeping plants with branches about 6 inches (15 centimeters) in diameter. These giant plants, known as progymnosperms, seemed to lean against the Gilboa trees for support, perhaps even climbing into them occasionally, Berry said. [Top 10 Poisonous Plants]

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