Plants to forest: scientists explore an ancient ecosystem
A recent fossil find has illuminated the landscape of one of Earth's earliest forests. Scientists are working to understand the dynamics of the ancient ecosystem.
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The new view of the ancient forest is changing paleontologists' understanding of what the landscape looked like. The earliest researchers thought the forest was in a swamp, but Berry and his colleagues, including study leader William Stein of Binghamton University in New York, now believe the forest stood in a flat coastal plain near an ancient shoreline. It was probably buried and preserved when a river channel shifted, bringing in loads of sand to cover the forest floor.Skip to next paragraph
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Before the forest's death, it was probably chock full of millipedes and insects, Berry said. As they grew, the Gilboa trees shed branches, which would have littered the forest floor and created a perfect habitat for creepy-crawlies.
"I've spent 20 years trying to imagine what these plants were like as individuals, and yet I really had no conception of them as an ecosystem," Berry said. "Going to Gilboa and sitting in the middle of the forest floor, you could almost see them growing out of the ground. … The fossil forest came to life in front of my eyes in a way that has never happened before."
More broadly, a deeper understanding of the forest helps paleontologists piece together the ecology of the very earliest forests on Earth. The Devonian period marks a time when plant life began to shift from small, scattered vegetation to large-scale forests, Berry said. Plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and during the Devonian forest boom, carbon dioxide levels may have dropped from 15 times that of today to modern levels.
The arrival of forests changed the way the whole Earth system worked, Berry said. He and his colleagues are using the Gilboa site to understand how this ecosystem flourished.
"We've gone from knowing about plants to knowing about a forest," Berry said. "That's really been the breakthrough for me."
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