The World's Oldest Fossil Trees Have Been Discovered in New York

The fossilized trees date back over 380 million years.

Overview of well-preserved Archaeopteris root system, left, possible Stigmarian Isoetalean lycopsid, right.
Photo: William Stein & Christopher Berry

The world’s oldest fossilized trees have been discovered in upstate New York, according to a new study.

Found in a quarry in the Catskill area of the state, near Cairo, N.Y., the fossils are part of the oldest forest that has ever been identified in the world, according to a study in the journal Current Biology. They were discovered after experts from the U.K. and New York started looking at the site more than 10 years ago, the BBC reported.

Cleaning the surface at the Cairo fossil forest site.
William Stein
Overview of Archaeopteris in greenish overwash sediment
William Stein & Christopher Berry

"This is the oldest place where you can wander around and map out where fossil trees were standing back in the middle part of the Devonian era,” Paleobotanist Dr. Chris Berry from Cardiff University, a co-author of the study, told the BBC. "It's a very ancient forest from the beginnings of the time where the planet was turning green and forests were becoming a normal part of the Earth's system.”

According to the study, the discovery “appears pivotal” to the evolution of forests with one type of tree exhibiting a “highly advanced root system essentially comparable to modern seed plants.” The forest, which dates back more than 380 million years, according to The BBC, was wiped out by a flood and researchers found fish fossils on the surface of the quarry there.

“This pushes … [the origins] of this kind of root system back in time,” Patricia Gensel, a paleobotanist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who was not involved in the study, told Smithsonian Magazine. “By the mid-Devonian, we have pretty sophisticated trees… Before this, we never would’ve been able to say that.”

Experts told the outlet they believe the forest had once been so big, it spread beyond even Pennsylvania.

Archaeopteris root system at the Cairo fossil forest site at first discovery.
Charles Ver Straeten
Oblique view of the site showing large rooting systems.
William Stein & Christopher Berry

"We're well aware at the moment that having forests is a good thing and burning down forests and deforestation is a bad thing,” Berry told the BBC, adding studying the fossilized trees can help experts better understand the relationship between trees and carbon dioxide as well as the evolution of trees in general.

The research was done by experts from Cardiff University in the U.K., Binghamton University in New York and the New York State Museum.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles