Sanfordiacaulis: A new ancient tree species that seems to have sprung from the mind of Dr. Seuss

Courtesy Matthew Stimson

The unique preservation of the Sanfordiacaulis densifolia tree, where the trunk is surrounded by more than 250 spirally arranged leaves, is the result of earthquakes in a 352-million-year-old rift-lake system, now exposed in New Brunswick, Canada.

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Trees are believed to exist Formed Hundreds of millions of years ago. Since then, evidence of these ancient plant sentinels has been scant.

Now, a new discovery of unique 3D tree fossils has opened a window into what the world looked like back then. Primitive forests of the planet Expanded our understanding of the architecture of trees and began to evolve Throughout Earth's history.

Five fossils of wood, buried alive by an earthquake 350 million years ago, have been discovered in a quarry in New Brunswick, Canada. study It was published Friday in the journal Current Biology. These new and unusual fossil trees were discovered by Dr. Not only do they reveal a surprising pattern reminiscent of a Seuss diagram, but they also reveal clues about them, the authors said. A period of living on earth Of this we know little.

“They're time capsules,” said Robert Castaldo, a paleontologist and sedimentologist who led the study, “really little windows into deep-time landscapes and ecosystems.”

Co-authors Olivia King and Matthew Stimson discovered the first of the ancient trees in 2017 while doing fieldwork at a rock quarry in New Brunswick. One of the specimens they discovered is one of the few cases in the entire plant fossil record — spanning more than 400 million years — in which a tree's branches and crown leaves are still attached to its trunk.

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Some of the oldest wood fossils Earth's earliest forests According to Gastaldo, occasionally found. Their discovery helps fill in some missing parts of the incomplete fossil record.

“We can only document at least five or six trees PaleozoicIt was preserved with its crown intact,” said Castaldo, a professor of geology at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

He noted that most ancient tree specimens are relatively small. The paleontologist was “copsmacked” by his colleagues for discovering a preserved tree 15 feet tall at maturity with a crown 18 feet in diameter.

Courtesy Tim Stonecipher

This model rendering of a newly discovered Sanfordiacaulis tree includes simplified branching patterns for easy visualization.

Researchers dug up the first fossil tree about seven years ago, but it took a few more years before four specimens of the same plant were found in close proximity to each other. Called “Sanfordiacaulis,” the newly identified species is named after Larry Sanford, the owner of the quarry from which the trees were dug.

The forms taken by these previously unknown 350-million-year-old plants resemble modern-day ferns or palms, according to the study, despite the fact that those tree species did not appear until 300 million years later. But while ferns or palms boast a few fronds at the top, the most complete specimen of the newly discovered fossil has more than 250 fronds wrapped around its trunk, with each section of preserved frond stretching up to 5.7 feet (1.7 meters).

According to Stimson, assistant curator of geology and paleontology at the New Brunswick Museum, the fossil is attached to a sandstone boulder and roughly the size of a small car.

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The cluster of trees' unique fossilization may be due to a landslide triggered by a “catastrophic” earthquake in an ancient rift lake, he said.

“These trees were alive when the earthquake struck. They were buried very quickly, very rapidly after that, at the bottom of the lake, and then the lake (went back to normal),” Stimson said.

Finding complete fossil trees is rarer and much less common than finding a complete dinosaur, says Peter Wilf, a paleobotanist and professor of geology at Pennsylvania State University who was not involved in the study. Wilf noted by email that the “extraordinary” new fossil tree is a relic of a period from which almost no wood fossils exist.

“The new fossils are a milestone in our understanding of how early forest systems evolved, eventually leading to the complex rainforest architecture that supports much of Earth's biodiversity,” Wilf added.

To King, a research associate at the New Brunswick Museum who found the group of fossils, sanfortiagallis must have looked like it was plucked straight from Dr. Seuss. Most famous works.

“You know in 'The Lorax', there are these big pom poms and short trunks at the top of the trees? They're probably the same structure. You have this huge crown, and then it tapers and paper into this very small trunk,” King said. “It's a very Dr. Seuss-esque tree. It's a weird and wonderful idea of ​​what this thing looks like.

But Sanfordiacaulis rule It was short-lived, the researchers said. “We're not revisiting the structure of this plant,” Stimson told CNN. He noted that he grew up in Early CarboniferousA period at the end of the Paleozoic era Plants and animals diversified They started moving from water to land.

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Much of evolution is experimental success A species' versatility or adaptability to various locations and conditions is often measured. The strange collection of tree fossils provides evidence of a “failed experiment in science and evolution,” Stimson added. “We're really starting to picture what life looked like 350 million years ago.”

Courtesy Matthew Stimson

Researchers excavated the first Sanfordiacaulis fossil tree about seven years ago, but four more specimens were found in close proximity to each other a few years later.

Fossils like sanfortiagallis are not only useful in helping humans understand how life evolved in the past, they can also help scientists figure out where life on our planet is headed next.

The presence of this particular species, according to the researchers behind its discovery, indicates that trees of that time began to occupy different ecological niches beyond what was previously understood.

Gastaldo sees this as a sign that plants are – very fond of Early Invertebrates – They were examining how they adapted to the environment. The earthquake that led to the fossilization of the trees also provides new geological evidence of what happened. Earth systems At the same time.

“This is actually the first evidence of (a tree) growing on the ground and between the tower above the ground,” Gastaldo said. “What else was there?”

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