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World’s oldest forest discovered close to New York City

A remarkable discovery near New York City has unveiled the world’s oldest forest, dating back 385 million years.

Located in Cairo, Green County, about two hours north of the city by car, the ancient forest offers a glimpse into a prehistoric world that even predates the dinosaurs.

Early plant life in the world’s oldest forest

Researchers from SUNY Binghamton and Cardiff University in Wales have unearthed fossils of early plant life at the site.

The forest, stretching from New York to Pennsylvania, featured trees as tall as 65 feet with trunks up to five feet in diameter. 

This discovery is pivotal in understanding the planet’s climatic evolution, as the emergence of trees played a crucial role in altering Earth’s climate by absorbing carbon dioxide and laying the groundwork for the atmosphere that supports human life.

First uncovered in 2009, the archaeological site has been meticulously analyzed by the team to accurately date the trees and identify the species that once thrived there. 

Christopher Berry, a paleobotanist from Cardiff University, described the experience, saying, “You are walking through the roots of ancient trees. Standing on the quarry surface we can reconstruct the living forest around us in our imagination.”

Fossilized woody roots 

The site, roughly half the size of a football field, contains rocks aged at 385 million years. The discovery of fossilized “woody roots” of old trees marks a significant turning point in Earth’s history.

These roots, with their unique horizontal radial patterns, indicate where vertical tree trunks once stood.

Predominantly, the forest’s trunks were from Archaeopteris, a tree species with large wooden roots and leafy branches.

The forest also housed cladoxylopsids, an extinct group of sphenopsids and ferns, and a third yet-to-be-identified tree type.

Interestingly, all these trees reproduced through spores rather than seeds, a process where small cells multiply to create more plants.

Geochemical changes in the world’s oldest forest

Kevin Boyce, a geoscientist at Stanford University, highlighted the significant impact these trees had on the ancient climate.

Their growth process involved “weathering,” a chemical reaction that extracts carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converts it to carbon ions in groundwater, which eventually flows to the sea and gets absorbed in limestone.

The researchers believe that a massive flood led to the forest’s demise, a theory supported by the discovery of multiple fish fossils on the quarry’s surface.

Berry noted the unexpected coexistence of plants previously thought to inhabit mutually exclusive environments.

He explained how they drilled into the fossil soil between the trees to investigate geochemical changes.

Preserving the forest as a historical site

In 2020, New York State Assemblyman Chris Tauge introduced a resolution to the Cairo Town Board to protect this significant area.

John Coyne, the supervisor of Cairo, expressed pride and excitement about this discovery, underscoring the collaboration between the county, state, and the town for its preservation.

Before this discovery, the oldest known forest was in Gilboa, New York, located about 25 miles from the Cairo site.

Discovered in the late 19th century, the Gilboa forest was home to Gilboa Trees, or Eospermatopteris, one of the earliest plant species on Earth.

These fern-like trees, reaching around 30 feet tall, lacked wood. A preserved tree stump from Gilboa, initially displayed in a museum in the mid-1900s, was later moved to the Cultural Education Center in Albany, New York.

Archaeopteris in the world’s oldest forest

As mentioned above, Archaeopteris trees were the predominant plants in the world’s oldest forest. This remarkable plant evolved in the late Devonian period, over 360 million years ago.

The prehistoric tree, bridging the gap between ferns and the earliest trees, held a pivotal role in transforming Earth’s ecosystems.

Scientists discovered Archaeopteris fossils in various parts of the world, from North America to Europe and Africa, revealing its widespread presence.

Archaeopteris dominated late Devonian forests with its towering presence, reaching up to 30 feet in height. It featured a unique combination of large, woody trunks and delicate, fern-like leaves.

These features make Archaeopteris a precursor to modern trees. Its robust root systems allowed for greater nutrient absorption and stability, fostering more complex forest ecosystems.

Impact and significance

The emergence of Archaeopteris played a crucial role in Earth’s carbon cycle. By drawing down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, these trees contributed to a significant drop in global temperatures, potentially leading to late Devonian ice ages.

Despite its success, Archaeopteris disappeared from the fossil record around 359 million years ago, marking its extinction. Its legacy, however, lives on.

Archaeopteris set the stage for the evolution of modern trees, shaping the structure of forests as we know them today.

In summary, this fascinating find pushes back the timeline of our planet’s botanical history and furthers our understanding of how ancient ecosystems functioned and evolved.

The Cairo forest, with its deep historical roots and significant scientific value, stands as a testament to the enduring wonders of the natural world.

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