This week University of Pennsylvania paleobotanist Hermann Pfefferkorn and colleagues have presented findings they've collected from a fossilized forest hidden under a coal mine in China for 300 million years. These findings will lend insight into the ecology and climate from the time and place that the forest was alive, before it was covered in a volcano's ash over a period of several days. Because of the speed in which the ash fell and the subsequent perfect storm of environmental factors that proceeded, this site has been kept in relatively excellent condition since the age of Pangea.
The image you see above has been presented by the University of Pennsylvania as a reconstruction of the peat-forming forest we're speaking about today. Jun Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Yi Zhang of Shenyang Normal University and Zhuo Feng of Yunnan University worked with Pfefferkorn who is, again, a professor in Penn's Department of Earth and Environmental Science. The paper they're about to present next week in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows off how this site, located near Wuda, China, is utterly unique in both their condition and their scale. As Pfefferkorn notes:
"This is now the baseline. Any other finds, which are normally much less complete, have to be evaluated based on what we determined here. … 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
The trees in this area were surrounded and covered with ash layers that the team was able to date to approximately 298 million years ago. This sets the forest at the point at which the Earth's several continental plates were still in a state of great flux, moving toward each other to form the supercontinent we now call Pangea.
The team studied three sites thus far, counting and mapping all fossilized plants as they move through the ancient forest. They've thus far found six groups of trees, with a layer of tree ferns forming a lower canopy below and gigantic trees such as Sigillaria and Cordaites grew to a height of 80 feet above. Also found were nearly-complete specimens of a group of trees known as Noeggerathiales, they being spore-bearing trees related to our modern day ferns, this family one that's appeared in locations from North America and Europe in past rediscovered sites as well.
These plants and the location provide an idea of what the environment was like at that one moment in time, but also allow us to gain context into the age in which that environment existed. As Pfefferkorn notes:
"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. 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." - Pfefferkorn
Let the exploration continue! It's always great to hear about the rediscoveries of our old Earth like this each time such a find is found, and we look forward to the continuation of our understanding of the planet we live on, and beyond!
[via University of Pennsylvania]