Top NewsScientists have discovered the world's earliest forest

Scientists have discovered the world's earliest forest

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  • By Greg Brosnan
  • BBC News Climate and Science

image source, Neil Davies

image caption,

Rocks where the forest is found

Scientists have discovered what they believe to be the world's earliest fossil forest in cliffs off the coast of southwest England.

It was discovered on high sandstone cliffs near Minehead, Somerset, near Putlin holiday camp.

Researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Cardiff say they are the oldest fossil trees ever found in Britain and the oldest known forest on Earth.

Trees called Calamophyton resemble palm trees.

Described as a kind of 'prototype' of today's trees, the largest are two to four meters tall.

The researchers identified fossils of plants and their debris as well as traces of fossilized tree logs and roots.

They show how early trees helped shape landscapes and stabilize riverbanks and coastlines hundreds of millions of years ago.

“When I first saw the pictures of tree trunks, I immediately knew what they were, based on 30 years of studying this type of tree worldwide,” said co-author Dr Christopher Perry of the Cardiff School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

“It was amazing to see them so close to home. But, for the first time, seeing these trees in their grown-up stages gives a very revealing insight.”

image source, Chris Perry

image caption,

Detail of fallen tree trunk

Dr Paul Kenrick, an expert on plant fossils at the Natural History Museum, who was not involved in the study, said the clues to how plants grew together at the time were of deep significance.

Researchers say the fossil forest is four million years older than the previous record in New York state.

It was found in the Hangman Sandstone Formation on the Devon and Somerset coasts and dates back to the Devonian period, 419 to 358 million years ago, a time of great expansion of life on land. The Devonian is the period named after the sea rocks that geologists found on the coast.

Researchers say the area discovered at the time was a semi-arid plain connected not to England, but to parts of Germany and Belgium, where fossils of such trees have also been found.

image source, Neil Davies

image caption,

Rocks where the forest is found

“It was a very different forest – not like any forest you see today,” said Professor Neil Davies, from Cambridge's Department of Earth Sciences.

“There were no undergrowth to speak of and the grass had yet to appear, but these densely packed trees had dropped numerous branches, which had a large impact on the landscape.”

Dr Kenrick from the Natural History Museum said the trees were very different from what we know today. Dicksonia antarctica is a tree fern native to Australia but popular as an ornamental plant in Britain.

image source, Good pictures

image caption,

Dicksonia antarctica – may be the modern equivalent of ancient forest trees.

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