Article image

World’s 'newest' oldest forest, recently discovered, is full of Calamophyton trees

Along the dramatic sandstone cliffs of South West England’s Devon and Somerset coast, researchers have unearthed the world’s oldest fossilized forest. Full of ancient Calamophyton trees, the forest dates back an astonishing 390 million years.

This remarkable find surpasses the previous oldest forest by four million years, previously located in New York State, and represents the most ancient fossilized trees discovered in Britain to date.

The discovery was made near Minehead, by the Bristol Channel, close to a modern-day Butlin’s holiday camp, by a team from the Universities of Cambridge and Cardiff.

Calamophyton: The palm trees that time forgot

The forest, dating to the Devonian Period, a crucial epoch for terrestrial life expansion, introduces us to Calamophyton trees. These ancient specimens, resembling palm trees at a glance, were in fact quite different from the trees we are familiar with today.

Unlike contemporary trees, Calamophyton trunks were hollow and thin, devoid of leaves, and adorned with twig-like structures instead of branches.

Remarkably, these trees grew to a modest height of two to four meters and played a pivotal role in early ecosystems by shedding vegetation that supported forest floor invertebrates.

This discovery challenges prior assumptions that this part of the English coast lacked significant plant fossils.

Dawn of terrestrial life in the Devonian Period

The presence of these ancient trees sheds light on the vital role early vegetation played in shaping landscapes, stabilizing riverbanks, and fortifying coastlines during a time when life was rapidly spreading onto land.

This period saw the emergence of seed-bearing plants and the establishment of arthropods as the earliest land animals.

Professor Neil Davies from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences, the study’s lead author, highlighted the Devonian period’s profound impact on terrestrial life and landscape dynamics.

The roots of trees and plants during this time began to stabilize sediment, fundamentally altering interactions between water and land, yet little was known about these earliest forests until now.

“The Devonian period fundamentally changed life on Earth,” Davies explained. “It also changed how water and land interacted with each other, since trees and other plants helped stabilize sediment through their root systems, but little is known about the very earliest forests.”

From ancient landscapes to modern cliffs

The fossil forest was located in the Hangman Sandstone Formation, an area that, during the Devonian period, was geographically detached from the rest of England and closer to parts of what are now Germany and Belgium. This context is crucial for understanding the broader geographical and ecological connections of the time.

Dr. Christopher Berry of Cardiff’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences shared his excitement upon recognizing the tree trunks from his three decades of study on similar trees globally.

He emphasized the unique insight gained from observing these trees in their original growth positions, offering a rare glimpse into the ecology of the world’s earliest forests and their influence on the sedimentary landscape.

“When I first saw pictures of the tree trunks I immediately knew what they were, based on 30 years of studying this type of tree worldwide. It was amazing to see them so near to home. But the most revealing insight comes from seeing, for the first time, these trees in the positions where they grew,” Berry enthused.

“It is our first opportunity to look directly at the ecology of this earliest type of forest, to interpret the environment in which Calamophyton trees were growing, and to evaluate their impact on the sedimentary system,” he concluded.

Tracing Earth’s geographical evolution

The fieldwork, conducted along England’s highest sea cliffs, some accessible only by boat, revealed a rich tapestry of Devonian period plant fossils embedded within the sandstone.

These findings, from fossilized plants and tree logs to traces of roots and sedimentary structures, paint a vivid picture of a semi-arid plain traversed by river channels.

Professor Davies described the ancient forest as unlike any today, with a landscape significantly shaped by the debris from densely packed Calamophyton trees.

This period marked a significant evolutionary moment when land plants began to influence river flow and sedimentation patterns, illustrating a pivotal stage in Earth’s ecological development.

“The evidence contained in these fossils preserves a key stage in Earth’s development, when rivers started to operate in a fundamentally different way than they had before, becoming the great erosive force they are today,” said Davies.

“People sometimes think that British rocks have been looked at enough, but this shows that revisiting them can yield important new discoveries,” he concluded.

Ancient Calamophyton tree forests provide modern lessons

In summary, the discovery of the world’s oldest fossilized forest along the Devon and Somerset coast marks a monumental leap in our understanding of Earth’s ancient landscapes and their ecosystems.

By uncovering the remains of Calamophyton trees, which thrived during the Devonian Period, scientists offer us a rare window into a time when the first complex life forms began to inhabit land, fundamentally altering the planet’s geological and ecological dynamics.

This research challenges previous assumptions about the fossil record in this region and highlights the intricate relationship between early plant life and the formation of terrestrial environments.

Through diligent fieldwork and expert analysis, the team has given the world a new understanding of the critical role forests play in shaping Earth’s early landscape, providing invaluable insights into the evolutionary processes that have made our world what it is today.

More about Calamophyton trees

In the lush, ancient landscapes that predate our modern forests, a variety of unique and fascinating plant species thrived.

Among these, as discussed above, the Calamophyton trees stood out for their distinctive features and contribution to the prehistoric ecosystem.

These ancient plants, which are now extinct, offer a glimpse into the complexity and diversity of life on Earth millions of years ago.

Understanding Calamophyton‘s place in history

Calamophyton trees belonged to the early periods of Earth’s history, a time when plant and animal life were both undergoing significant evolution and diversification.

They are often associated with the Devonian period, a crucial era in the history of life on Earth, marking the rise of significant terrestrial ecosystems.

The Devonian period is sometimes referred to as the “Age of Fishes,” but it was also a time when the first forests began to appear, with Calamophyton contributing to this burgeoning terrestrial landscape.

Characteristics and reproduction

Calamophyton trees were notable for their unique structural characteristics. They possessed a central stem that supported a series of branching fronds or leaves, resembling the modern ferns and palms in appearance but belonging to an entirely different lineage of ancient plants.

These trees did not have true leaves as we know them today; instead, their fronds were very different, serving the essential functions of photosynthesis and gas exchange.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Calamophyton trees was their reproductive system. Like many ancient plants, they reproduced through spores rather than seeds, a method that predates the evolution of flowering plants.

This mode of reproduction was well-suited to the humid, warm environments in which they thrived, allowing them to spread and colonize new areas effectively.

Ecological impact

The presence of Calamophyton trees had a profound impact on the prehistoric ecosystems in which they lived. By contributing to the development of the planet’s first forests, they played a crucial role in modifying the Earth’s atmosphere, increasing oxygen levels, and paving the way for the evolution of more complex life forms.

These ancient forests also provided habitats for a wide range of organisms, from the smallest insects to larger, more complex animals, fostering biodiversity and ecological complexity.

Moreover, the decay and fossilization of Calamophyton and other contemporary plants led to the formation of coal beds, which are an important source of fossil fuels today.

Thus, these ancient trees not only shaped the ecosystems of their time but also have a lasting impact on modern human society and our energy resources.

Calamophyton trees’ lasting legacy

Though the Calamophyton trees have long since vanished from the face of the Earth, their legacy lives on through the fossil record and the role they played in shaping the course of evolutionary history.

By studying these ancient plants, scientists can gain insights into the environmental conditions of the past, the evolutionary processes that have shaped life on Earth, and the intricate relationships between different forms of life throughout history.

In essence, the story of Calamophyton is a testament to the dynamic and ever-changing nature of our planet. It reminds us of the profound ways in which life, through its myriad forms and processes, has transformed and continues to transform the world we live in.

The full study was published in the Journal of the Geological Society.


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