Along the towering sandstone cliffs of the Devon and Somerset coast in southwest England, researchers have uncovered an extraordinary find – the oldest known fossilized forest on Earth dating back 390 million years.

The fossilized trees, discovered and identified by researchers from the University of Cambridge and Cardiff University, represent the oldest fossilized trees ever found in Britain and the oldest fossilized forest known worldwide. Remarkably, this ancient forest predates the previous record holder found in New York State by around 4 million years.

The fossil specimens were located near the town of Minehead, along the southern shores of the Bristol Channel close to a modern-day Butlin’s holiday camp. The fossilized trees, known as Calamophyton, at first glance resemble palm trees, but were actually prototypes of the tree varieties we know today. Rather than solid wood, their trunks were thin and hollow in the center. They also lacked leaves, with hundreds of branch-like structures covering their limbs instead.

These primitive trees were also much shorter than their descendants, with the largest specimens reaching only 2-4 meters tall. As they grew, the trees shed countless branches which littered the forest floor, providing sustenance for invertebrate life below.

Until now, scientists had assumed this stretch of the English coastline contained no significant plant fossils. However, this remarkable find, in addition to its astounding age, reveals how the earliest trees helped shape landscapes and stabilize river banks and coastlines hundreds of millions of years ago. The findings are published in the Journal of the Geological Society.

The fossilized forest dates back to the Devonian period 419-358 million years ago, when the first major wave of life took to land. By the period’s end, the first seed-bearing plants and terrestrial arthropods had become well-established.

The Devonian revolutionized life on Earth, explains Neil Davies, a professor from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences and the study’s lead author. It also completely changed the way water and land interacted with one another, as trees and other plants helped stabilize sediments through their root systems, but very little is known about these first forest ecosystems.

The fossilized forest was found in the Hangman Sandstone Formation along the north Devon and west Somerset coasts. During the Devonian, this region was not connected to the rest of England but was located farther south, attached to parts of modern Germany and Belgium where similar Devonian fossils have been uncovered.

When I first saw photos of the trunk fragments, I immediately knew what they were thanks to over 30 years studying these early trees worldwide, says co-author Dr. Christopher Berry from Cardiff’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. It was hugely exciting to see them so close to home. But more importantly, it gives us our first glimpse of what these primitive forests actually looked like in life.

Fieldwork along England’s highest sea cliffs, some only accessible by boat, revealed this sandstone formation is rich in plant fossils from the Devonian period. Fossilized plants, branches, tree trunks, roots, and sediment structures were all preserved within the sandstone. The area was once a semi-arid floodplain crisscrossed by small river channels flowing from mountains to the northwest.

It was a pretty strange forest, not like anything we know today, Davies says. There was no underbrush or grasses, but these densely packed trees dropped masses of branch material which had a huge ecological impact on the landscape.

For the first time, densely growing plants covered the land surface. The sheer volume of shed Calamophyton branches accumulated in sediment layers, affecting how rivers flowed across the region – the earliest example of plant debris altering river systems on a major scale.

The evidence preserved in these fossils marks a key turning point in the Earth’s history, when rivers started to behave in fundamentally different ways, becoming the major erosive force we know today, Davies notes. It shows we can still make major discoveries in areas like the British rocks which have been studied for centuries.


Sources

University of Cambridge | Neil S. Davies, William J. McMahon and Christopher M. Barry. Earth’s earliest forest: fossilized trees and vegetation-induced sedimentary structures from the Middle Devonian (Eifelian) Hangman Sandstone Formation, Somerset and Devon, SW England. Journal of the Geological Society (2024). DOI: 10.1144/jgs2023-204


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