March 5th, 2012 by

In the world of environmental news, forests are frequent stars. They’re just too important, tied to too many wide-reaching issues to stay out of the headlines for long. Lately, however, the spotlight has been on a different type of forests: ancient ones. We’re not talking about old-growth forests or living trees that happen to be thousands of years old — the forests that have been racking up the headlines in recent weeks are those that covered this planet millions of years ago.

An artist's recreation of the fossilized forest in China (Credit: Ren Yugao)

First, American and Chinese researchers discovered a 298-million-year-old forest in northern China. The tropical forest was preserved by volcanic ash in much the same way as the city of Pompeii, giving scientists a unique opportunity to study exceptionally well-fossilized remains of plants that were wiped out long before humanity set foot on the global stage. Another exciting aspect of the find is the sheer scale of the area preserved: more than 10,000 square feet. Scientists often find only fragments of a fossilized ecosystem and use them to form an impression of the whole thing. With such a large area to work with, researchers can get a real picture of the entire forest, from the exact species that make up the understory to how high the canopy reached.

Then, just a few days later, scientists from the University of London shared that they had created maps of the world’s forests from the Cretaceous period — the time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. The maps were formed using data from thousands of sites of fossilized forests around the world. Among other things, the maps show that at that time, when the climate was a great deal warmer and more humid than it is today, forests reached further north, even into the North Pole, and had an unfamiliar composition. As part of the study, the researchers also analyzed fossilized tree rings, which showed that trees in the Cretaceous period grew twice as fast as today’s trees do.

Then — again just days later — there was more: Scientists have uncovered the world’s oldest fossilized forest. And this one is right here in the U.S.: The Gilboa fossilized forest, which sits in New York’s Catskill Mountains, is estimated to be 385 million years old. I’m not even sure I can wrap my head around something being that old — predating even the dinosaurs! — but the find is astounding. This forest lived at a time when forests were still a new concept; fish were the most common type of animal on the planet, and plants were just beginning to spread onto dry land. The detail in which we can see this long-dead forest is unprecedented: We know that it was composed of enormous, palm-like trees, covered in large, creeping vines and that was likely crawling with ancient insects.

Check out this video from Dr. Chris Berry of Cardiff University, part of the research team working on the Gilboa forest:

To me, it is amazing to be able to look back into history as these discoveries and developments allow us to do. And at the same time, I think it reminds us to look forward as well. Even today, forests are changing; species shift, evolve and die out. Not millions, but even a couple hundred years from now, will things be so different that people will be studying photos instead of fossils to see what our forests look like today?