President's Report Masthead
June 30, 2012

Ancient forest may offer climate-change insights

William Stein illustration
Scientists have discovered the floor of the world’s oldest forest.

A Binghamton University scientist and his colleagues reported the discovery of the floor of the world’s oldest forest earlier this year in the journal Nature.

“It was like discovering the botanical equivalent of dinosaur footprints,” said William Stein, associate professor of biological sciences, and one of the article’s authors. “But the most exciting part was finding out just how many different types of footprints there were. The newly uncovered area was preserved in such a way that we were literally able to walk among the trees, noting what kind they were, where they had stood and how big they had grown.”

The town of Gilboa in upstate New York is famous as home of some of the earliest tree fossils. But after a new round of excavation, scientists may gain new insight into the role of modern-day forests and their impact on climate change.

The Gilboa area has been known as a tree fossil location since the late 1800s. During the 1920s, when construction of the Schoharie Dam revealed a dense stand of trees, paleontologists began to investigate the site in earnest. Named Eospermatopteris, or “ancient seed fern,” by Winifred Goldring of the New York State Museum in 1924, these earliest trees had survived only as broken standing bases and trunks. More detailed glimpses of the past emerged in 2004 and 2005, when specimens with crowns were discovered.

The research team caught a break in 2010, when repairs on the Gilboa Dam reopened the site. What they found was a substantially intact portion of the ancient forest horizon, complete with root systems.

When the Gilboa forest began to emerge — about 386 million years ago — Earth experienced a dramatic drop in global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and the associated cooling led to a period of glaciation.

“Trees probably changed everything,” Stein said. “Not only did these emerging forests likely cause important changes in global patterns of sedimentation, but they may have triggered a major extinction in fossil records.”

Stein describes what today’s scientists learn from the world’s oldest forest in this brief video: