Article image

Some ancient trees looked like nothing ever seen by humans

Researchers have unveiled a fascinating discovery from the fossil records found in New Brunswick, Canada. They describe ancient trees, dating back 350 million years, with a unique three-dimensional crown shape, challenging our traditional perceptions of tree structure and evolution.

These fossils, unlike the typical tree remains that feature only trunks, provide us with a rare insight into what the canopy and overall form of such ancient trees might have looked like.

Startling features of ancient Sanfordiacaulis trees

The findings highlight trees with unusually long leaves surrounding slender trunks, creating a dense and expansive canopy that extends significantly outward from the trunk.

Robert Gastaldo of Colby College, Maine, an expert involved in this research, expresses astonishment at the discovery.

He notes, “The way in which this tree produced hugely long leaves around its spindly trunk, and the sheer number over a short length of trunk, is startling.”

The ancient trees, named Sanfordiacaulis, bear a superficial resemblance to ferns or palms — plants known for their clustered leaves at the top.

“In contrast, Sanfordiacaulis preserves more than 250 leaves around its trunk, with each partially preserved leaf extending 1.75 meters from it,” Gastaldo continued.

This research was facilitated by an international collaboration involving Matthew Stimson and Olivia King from the New Brunswick Museum and Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

Extraordinary fossil find

Their work sheds light on the evolution of plants and arborescence, offering valuable insights into the diverse growth forms that existed throughout history, some of which diverge significantly from the trees we are familiar with today.

“We estimate that each leaf grew at least another meter before terminating. This means that the ‘bottle brush’ had a dense canopy of leaves that extended at least 5.5 meters (or 18 feet) around a trunk that was non-woody and only 16 centimeters (or 0.5 feet) in diameter. Startling to say the least,” Gastaldo explained.

The discovery serves as a reminder of the variety of tree forms that have existed on Earth, some so unique they seem as if they were conjured from the imagination of Dr. Seuss.

“We all have a mental concept of what a tree looks like, depending on where we live on the planet, and we have a vision of what is familiar,” Gastaldo says.

The fossil on which we report is unique and a strange growth form in the history of life. It is one of evolution’s experiments during a time when forest plants underwent biodiversification, and it is a form that seems to be short lived.

The preservation of these fossils is attributed to earthquake-induced burial along the margin of a rift lake, with the first of these rare specimens unearthed about seven years ago.

Significance of Sanfordiacaulis and intact crowns

It’s a discovery that underscores the rarity of finding fossil trees with intact crowns, prompting researchers to delve into the organization and evolutionary significance of such plants.

“Any fossil tree with an intact crown is a rarity in the history of life,” Gastaldo clarifies. “Having the crown leaves attached to a trunk, by itself, begs the questions what kind of plant is it, how is that plant organized, And is it some form that continues to the present, or is it outside of the ‘normal’ concept of a tree? All of these questions, and more, led to this multi-year endeavor.” 

The research team proposes that the unusual growth form of Sanfordiacaulis was likely an adaptation to maximize light capture and minimize competition, representing the earliest evidence of smaller trees thriving under the canopy of taller forests.

This suggests that plant life during the Early Carboniferous period was more complex than previously thought, with Sanfordiacaulis living at a time when plants were exploring a variety of forms and structures.

“The history of life on land consists of plants and animals that are unlike any of those that live at the present,” Gastaldo says.

“Evolutionary mechanisms operating in the deep past resulted in organisms that successfully lived over long periods of time, but their shapes, forms, growth architectures, and life histories undertook different trajectories and strategies. Rare and unusual fossils, such as the New Brunswick tree, is but one example of what colonized our planet but was an unsuccessful experiment,” Gastaldo concludes.

Implications and future research

In summary, the discovery of these ancient Sanfordiacaulis trees with unique crown shapes redefines our understanding of prehistoric arboreal life and illuminates the evolutionary creativity of nature.

By meticulously analyzing these rare fossils, researchers have unveiled the complex ecosystems and diverse forms of plant life that flourished on Earth 350 million years ago.

The collaborative effort behind this research highlights the importance of international partnerships in uncovering the mysteries of our planet’s biological past.

Through their work, the team has provided invaluable insights into the evolution of trees and the dynamic processes that shaped the biodiversity of ancient forests, offering a vivid reminder of the ever-changing tapestry of life on Earth.

The full study was published in the journal Current Biology.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day