The Paleobotany Collection at the New York State Museum is one of the most important collections of its kind in the United States. With over 12,000 specimens, the research collection is also one of the largest in the US due to the recent acquisition of the SUNY Binghampton Paleobotany Collection. While the majority of the fossils are from New York, material from other famous localities across the US and the world are represented. Plant fossils in the collection range from Silurian Cooksonia, one of the earliest known land plants, through the Pleistocene, although the majority of the specimens are Devonian.
Especially significant is the collection of material from the Gilboa fossil locality. Fossil tree stumps from this site were first discovered by a fossil hunter named Lockwood between 1852 and 1854. In the 1920’s during construction of a dam near Gilboa, New York, these stumps and other fossils were studied by then State Paleontologist Winifred Goldring. Thousands of pounds of fossils, many preserved by the mineral pyrite (Fools Gold), were shipped to the New York State Museum for study. Unfortunately, a large part of her collection was subsequently destroyed through a natural mineral decay process called “pyrite’s disease”. This was a great loss to the museum and spurred funding for construction of two special rooms in the collection area of the museum that are climate controlled in order to slow this decay process.
The Gilboa fossil site is important because it represents the oldest known fossil forest and is made up of at least three types of large plants – Eospermatopteris, Tetraxylopteris and lycopsids. Older fossil trees are known, but they are smaller and do not occur in association with other tree types. In addition, hundreds of stumps that have been recovered from the site were preserved in their upright, life position.
In 2010, New York State Museum scientists were contacted by the manager of the construction company that was rebuilding the dam along the Schoharie Creek near Gilboa. Researchers dropped what they were doing and rushed to the locality where they discovered that the forest floor was now exposed. Indentations in the forest floor indicated where trees had grown, which enabled them to map the positions of each plant. The hundreds of specimens that were collected during the brief period before the new dam was completed help to replace what was lost prior to construction of the climate controlled rooms.
Another important locality of about the same age in New York, South Mountain, helped to answer questions that were raised by the discovery of the Eospermatopteris tree stumps at Gilboa. Here, the crown of an Eospermatopteris tree, named Wattieza, was discovered in 2005, followed by an entire trunk in 2006. These discoveries allow scientists to reconstruct the entire tree.
A slightly older site near Cairo, New York, preserves the traces of the roots produced by a tree, probably Archaeopteris. Although no actual tree fossils have been found there, the root traces are extremely important because they tell us about the form and function of early tree root systems. Another unique aspect of this locality is the preservation of sharks and placoderm (armored) fish skeletons among the tree roots.
This is an active collection that is still growing as important scientists continue to contribute new material. The specimens it contains are also being used for new research projects.