Surprisingly Complex Community Discovered in the mid-Devonian Fossil Forest at Gilboa

TitleSurprisingly Complex Community Discovered in the mid-Devonian Fossil Forest at Gilboa
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2012
AuthorsStein, WE, Berry, CM, VanAller Hernick, L, Mannolini, F
KeywordsEarth sciences, Evolution, Palaeontology, Plant sciences

The origin of trees by the mid-Devonian epoch (398–385 million years ago) signals a major change in terrestrial ecosystems with potential long-term consequences including increased weathering, drop in atmospheric CO2, modified climate, changes in sedimentation patterns and mass extinction1, 2, 3. However, little is known about the ecology of early forests or how changes in early terrestrial ecosystems influenced global processes. One of the most famous palaeontological records for this time is the ‘oldest fossil forest’ at Riverside Quarry, Gilboa, New York, USA, discovered in the 1920s4, 5. Hundreds of large Eospermatopteris sandstone casts, now thought to represent the bases of standing cladoxylopsid trees6, were recovered from a horizon that was originally interpreted as a muddy swamp. After quarry operations ceased, relatively minor outcrops of similar fossils at nearby localities have provided limited opportunities to evaluate this pervasive view using modern methods7, 8. In 2010, removal of the quarry backfill enabled reappraisal of the palaeoecology of this important site. Here we describe a 1,200 m2 map showing numerous Eospermatopteris root systems in life position within a mixed-age stand of trees. Unexpectedly, large woody rhizomes with adventitious roots and aerial branch systems identified as aneurophytalean progymnosperms run between, and probably climb into, Eospermatopteris trees. We describe the overall habit for these surprisingly large aneurophytaleans, the earliest fossil group having wood produced by a bifacial vascular cambium. The site also provides evidence for arborescence within lycopsids, extending the North American range for trees in this ecologically critical group. The rooting horizon is a dark grey sandy mudstone showing limited root penetration. Although clearly belonging to a wetland coastal plain environment9, the forest was probably limited in duration and subject to periodic disturbance. These observations provide fundamental clarification of the palaeoecology of this mixed-group early forest, with important implications for interpreting coeval assemblage data worldwide.