Earth's First Rainforest Unearthed

April 23, 2007
Detail of a Pteridosperm
Detail of a pteridosperm, an extinct seed-producing fern-like plant. Width across image about six centimeters. Credit: Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang

A spectacular fossilised forest has transformed our understanding of the ecology of the Earth’s first rainforests. It is 300 million years old.

The forest is composed of a bizarre mixture of extinct plants: abundant club mosses, more than 40 metres high, towering over a sub-canopy of tree ferns, intermixed with shrubs and tree-sized horsetails. Nowhere elsewhere on the planet is it possible to (literally) walk through such an extensive swathe of Carboniferous rainforest.

It was discovered by Dr Howard Falcon-Lang from the University of Bristol, UK, and US colleagues, in the underground workings of a coalmine, in Illinois, USA. The results of this work are published online today in Geology, by the Geological Society of America.

The fossilized forest was preserved following a major earthquake 300 million years ago. The quake caused the whole region to drop below sea level whereupon the forest became buried in mud, preserving it forever.

Dr Howard Falcon-Lang said: "It was an amazing experience. We drove down the mine in an armoured vehicle, until we were a hundred metres below the surface. The fossil forest was rooted on top of the coal seam, so where the coal had been mined away the fossilized forest was visible in the ceiling of the mine.

"We walked for miles and miles along pitch-black passages with the fossil forest just above our heads. We were able to make a map of the forest by the light of our miner’s lamps."

The fossil forest is the largest ever found, covering over 10,000 hectares, an area 10 km by 10 km (which would cover the city of Bristol, UK). The fossils preserve a unique snapshot of what tropical rainforests were like 300 million year ago.

Dr Falcon-Lang added: "As there is nothing like it around today, before our work we knew very little about the ecological preferences and community structure of these ancient plants. This spectacular discovery allows us to track how the species make-up of the forest changed across the landscape, and how that species make-up is effected by subtle differences in the local environment."

The study reconstructs a Carboniferous rainforest at the largest spatial scale ever attempted. The fossils show that the Earth's first rainforests were highly diverse and that the kinds of tree species changed across the ancient landscape. The forest dates from the Carboniferous period, 300 million years ago, when most of the world's coal resources were formed.

Source: University of Bristol

Explore further: Scientists: Drought stressing California's Giant Sequoias

Related Stories

Scientists: Drought stressing California's Giant Sequoias

September 24, 2015

Giant Sequoias growing in California's Sierra Nevada are among the largest and oldest living things on earth, but scientists climbing high up into their green canopies say they are seeing symptoms of stress caused by the ...

Scientists advise letting wildfires burn when prudent

September 18, 2015

With nearly 9 million acres burned this year across the nation, 2015 is shaping up to be one of the most destructive wildfire seasons yet. And with drought and climate change, wildfires are only predicted to get worse.

What are asteroids?

September 10, 2015

4.6 billion years ago, our solar system formed from a collection of gas and dust surrounding our nascent sun. While much of the gas and dust in this protoplanetary disk coalesced to form the planets, some of the debris was ...

Rwanda names 24 baby mountain gorillas in annual tradition

September 5, 2015

Youths wearing gorilla costumes and rubber boots grunted and scampered in front of Rwanda's president on Saturday during the ceremonial naming of 24 baby mountain gorillas in the African country, where the critically endangered ...

Mysterious fungus killing snakes in at least nine states

August 9, 2015

Hidden on hillsides in a remote part of western Vermont, a small number of venomous timber rattlesnakes slither among the rocks, but their isolation can't protect them from a mysterious fungus spreading across the eastern ...

Recommended for you

From a very old skeleton, new insights on ancient migrations

October 9, 2015

Three years ago, a group of researchers found a cave in Ethiopia with a secret: it held the 4,500-year-old remains of a man, with his head resting on a rock pillow, his hands folded under his face, and stone flake tools surrounding ...

Mexican site yields new details of sacrifice of Spaniards

October 9, 2015

It was one of the worst defeats in one of history's most dramatic conquests: Only a year after Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico, hundreds of people in a Spanish-led convey were captured, sacrificed and apparently eaten.

Who you gonna trust? How power affects our faith in others

October 6, 2015

One of the ongoing themes of the current presidential campaign is that Americans are becoming increasingly distrustful of those who walk the corridors of power – Exhibit A being the Republican presidential primary, in which ...

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.