The findings of new arboreal fossils throw new light on the evolution of trees

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The findings of new arboreal fossils throw new light on the evolution of trees

New research suggests the modern versions of these astonishing structures are more deeply rooted in the arboreal family tree than ever thought before.

The new discovery of the world's oldest fossil forest can allow us to better understand how trees evolved and how they draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

An article in the journal Current Biology has uncovered Earth’s oldest known forest outside Cairo, New York. The ancient woodland predates the rise of seed-producing plants, a group that includes almost all living trees. The Paleozoic forest is also home to the remains of intricate tree root systems that bear an uncanny resemblance to those still around today.

More than 10 years ago, experts from Cardiff University, UK, Binghamton University in the US and the New York State Museum began looking at the site in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains in the Hudson Valley. Since then, over 3,000 square metres have been mapped of the forest and concluded the forest was home to at least two types of trees: Cladoxylopsids and Archaeopteris. A third type of tree has yet to be identified.

Scientists say they discovered very long, woody roots that transformed the way plants and soils gather water. "It's a very ancient forest from the beginnings of the time where the planet was turning green and forests were becoming a normal part of the Earth's system," said Christopher Berry, a paleobotanist at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom. “Roots maximize [a tree’s] physiological capacity. An efficient rooting system is key to being a successful tree.” But roots didn’t always look as they do today, and researchers have questioned how and when trees evolved their expansive underground plumbing for a long time.

"This pushes … [the origins] of this kind of root system back in time,” says University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Patricia Gensel, a paleobotanist specializing in plants of the Devonian period–from 419 million to 360 million years ago. “By the mid-Devonian, we have pretty sophisticated trees,” says Gensel, who was not involved in the study. “Before this, we never would’ve been able to say that.”

This new research suggests the modern versions of these astonishing structures are more deeply rooted in the arboreal family tree than ever thought before. Berry says studying the site can give us a better understanding of how trees evolved and how they draw down carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.

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