Ancient Tropical Forest Discovered, Reconstructed
February 21, 2012

Ancient Tropical Forest Discovered, Reconstructed

A team of researchers has discovered and reconstructed a 300-million-year-old tropical forest that was preserved by a volcanic eruption.

The team reconstructed the Pompeii-like, fossilized forest, helping give scientists a better understanding about the ecology and climate during its time.

The site is located near Wuda, China and was covered by ash from a large volcanic eruption nearly 300 million years ago.

The team was able to get a better vantage point of the sites because nearby coal-mining activities unearthed large tracts of rock.

They were able to examine about 3,280-square-feet of the ash layer in three different sites located near one another.

The plants in the area were preserved as they fell, many in the exact locations they grew, because of the way the ash covered the forest.

“It´s marvelously preserved,” Hermann Pfefferkorn, a paleobotanist at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a recent press release. “We can stand there and find a branch with the leaves attached, and then we find the next branch and the next branch and the next branch. And then we find the stump from the same tree. That´s really exciting.”

The team also discovered smaller trees with the leaves, branches, trunk and cones still intact, all preserved in their entirety.

The scientists dated the ash to approximately 298 million years ago, which falls at the beginning of a geologic period known as the Permian.

During this period, Earth's continental plates were still moving towards one another to form the supercontinent Pangea.  The Earth's climate at this time would be comparable to today's climate.

The team counted and mapped the fossilized plants they discovered, identifying six groups of trees in all.

Tree ferns formed a lower canopy, while 80-foot-high trees helped carve out the height of the ancient forest.

They also found nearly complete specimens of a group of trees known as Noeggerathailes.  This group of spore-bearing trees had been identified from sites in North America and Europe, but also appeared to be more common in these Asian sites.

The researchers worked with painter Ren Yugao to help depict an accurate reconstruction of all three sites.

“This is the first such forest reconstruction in Asia for any time interval, it´s the first of a peat forest for this time interval and it´s the first with Noeggerathiales as a dominant group,” Pfefferkorn said in the press release.

He said this find cannot explain how climate changes have affected life on Earth, but does help provide a valuable context.

“It´s like Pompeii: Pompeii gives us deep insight into Roman culture, but it doesn´t say anything about Roman history in and of itself,” Pfefferkorn said. “But on the other hand, it elucidates the time before and the time after. This finding is similar. It´s a time capsule and therefore it allows us now to interpret what happened before or after much better.”

The study was published in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Image Caption: A reconstruction of the 300-million-year-old peat-forming forest at a site near Wuda, China. Credit: University of Pennsylvania/Ren Yugao


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