New York State Museum researchers and scientists from Binghamton University and Cardiff University report discovery of the floor of the world’s oldest forest

New York State Museum researchers and scientists from Binghamton University and Cardiff University have reported the discovery of the floor of the world’s oldest forest in a cover article in the March 1 issue of Nature, a leading international journal of science.

“It was like discovering the botanical equivalent of dinosaur footprints,” said Dr. William Stein, associate professor of biological sciences at Binghamton University, and one of the article’s authors. “But the most exciting part was finding out just how many different types of footprints there were. The newly uncovered area was preserved in such a way that we were literally able to walk among the trees, noting what kind they were, where they had stood and how big they had grown.”

Scientists are now piecing together a view of this ancient site, dating back about 385 million years ago, which could shed new light on the role of modern-day forests and their impact on climate change.

The recent discovery was made in the same area in Schoharie County where fossils of the Earth’s oldest trees – the Gilboa stumps – were discovered in the 1850s, 1920 and again in 2010 and were brought to the State Museum. The Museum has the world’s largest and best collection of Gilboa fossil tree stumps. For decades scientists did not know what the trees connected to the stumps looked like. That mystery was solved when Linda VanAller Hernick, the State Museum’s Paleontology collections manager, and Frank Mannolini, Paleontology collections technician, found fossils of the tree’s intact crown in a nearby location in 2004, and a 28-foot-long trunk portion in 2005. The discovery of the 385-million-year-old specimens was named one of the “100 top Science Stories of 2007” by Discover Magazine. Stein, Mannolini, Hernick, and Dr. Christopher M. Berry, a paleobotany lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales, co-authored a Nature article reporting that discovery, as well as the most recent one. Working in conjunction with Stein, Mannolini also developed a sketch of the ancient forest.

“This spectacular discovery and the resulting research provide more answers to the questions that have plagued scientists for more than a century since the first Gilboa stumps were uncovered and brought to the State Museum,” said Hernick, whose passionate interest in the fossils date back to her childhood exposure to the Gilboa fossils.

In 2003 Hernick wrote “The Gilboa Fossils,” a book published by the State Museum, about the history and significance of the fossils and their use in an iconic exhibition about the Earth’s oldest forest that was in the Museum’s former location in the State Education Department building on Washington Avenue. One of the key planners of the exhibition, which influenced generations of paleontologists, was Winifred Goldring, the nation’s first female state paleontologist who was based at the State Museum. She worked tirelessly to study and interpret the Gilboa fossils and named the trees Eospermatopteris, or “ancient seed fern.” In 1924, her paper about the stumps, together with the Museum exhibition, brought the “Gilboa forest” to the attention of the world. One of the Gilboa stumps will be on display in the Museum lobby, beginning March 2. – www.nysm.nysed.gov

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