Did truffle trees exist before? A wonderful fossil found in a Canadian quarry

Giant moss forests with scaly trunks arose from ancient swamps in Atlantic Canada 350 million years ago.

But under the canopy even grew strange trees, the fossils of which were recently discovered in a quarry in Norton, New South Wales.

“What it really looks like is one of those truffle trees The Loraxsaid Olivia King, one of the researchers who discovered the fossil. She pointed to a popular children’s picture book by Dr. Seuss that features brilliantly colored trees being destroyed to produce clothing called “thneeds.”

watched You can compare truffle trees in this review of The Lorax:

CBC’s Eli Glassner talks about two films arriving in theaters: Dr. Seuss’ animated film The Lorax (and its controversial connections) and the Oscar-winning football documentary Undefeated.

like truffles, new fossil species, sanfordiacolis densifolia, It was slightly taller than a human, but not very tall (about three metres), and had a long stem that jutted out in a dense mop of long leaves. That mop was even more extreme than the size of a truffle tree – more than five metres, or about the diameter of an above-ground swimming pool.

“It’s different from anything we see today,” said Matthew Stimson, who co-discovered the fossil described in the article. A new study published in Current Biology Friday.

How was it found in a new brunswick quarry

Sanfordiacolis He lived in a time called the Mississippian, early part of the Carboniferous period. This was before dinosaurs or even reptiles evolved, and insects and salamander-like amphibians were just beginning to colonize the Earth. At that time, New Brunswick’s climate was subtropical to tropical, and its lakes were surrounded by swamp forests.

A woman wearing a white baseball cap lies on a gray rock containing a dark fossil.
Olivia King, a researcher at Saint Mary’s University and New Brunswick Museum, discovered the fossil with her colleague Matt Stimson at Sanford Quarry in Norton, New Brunswick. (Matt Stimson)

King and Stimson are both graduate students at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and also work at the New Brunswick Museum. They were looking for traces of those early animals, often in quarries that allowed them to do so, because those were places where fresh rock was constantly being exposed by drilling.

At Sandford Quarry, the sandstone comes from the bottom of an ancient lake so long and so deep that near its bottom, there was no oxygen to promote decomposition. It preserved not only the fish, but also parts of the surrounding forest that had been submerged by landslides caused by the earthquakes.

While searching there in 2017, King and Stimson discovered a tree trunk embedded in a rock. When they dug it up to uncover more, they realized that the trunk was attached to branches and leaves that did not belong to anything they recognized.

“This was something new and unique,” ​​Stimson said.

A man stands over a fossil
University of Saskatchewan paleontologist Professor James Basinger, who is not a co-author of the study, stands next to part of the fossil. The tree trunk and attached leaves are exposed. The fossil leaves extend beyond the edges of the block, which was removed and trimmed before being transported to the New Brunswick Museum. (Patrica J. Gensel)

They began sending pictures to experts in fossil plants to help them identify them.

They also contacted the quarry owner, Laurie Sanford, who offered his employees and machinery to dig up the rock and transport it to the New Brunswick Museum. The fossil is named after him for his contributions.

What does it tell us about the history of trees?

Robert Gastaldo, professor emeritus at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, was among the paleobotanists called in to help identify and study the unusual plant. He remembers that he entered the room where the huge block was stored, and the tree was embedded in it. “And (I) went, ‘Oh wow.’

Not only was it large, he said, it was very unusual to find a tree crown preserved with a trunk. It is also unusual that they are preserved in three dimensions, rather than being flattened during the fossilization process.

Study co-author Adrian Park, a geologist with the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources and Energy Development, found evidence of earthquake-triggered landslides at the fossil site. The researchers believe that sediment that covered the tree during an ancient landslide protected it from being crushed by additional sediment accumulating on top of it in the hundreds of millions of years that followed.

Illustration showing the heights of different ancient trees compared to a human silhouette.
An image from the study shows the tree heights of various fossil plants found before, during, and after Sandfordiacaulis. For some, only trunks were found. (Gastaldo et al./Current Biology)

Very tall moss trees and low-growing plants have previously been found in forests of the Mississippi River, but researchers have yet to find evidence of a middle layer of medium-sized trees, like those found in the “sub-canopy” of modern tropical forests, Gastaldo said. Until this one.

Its huge mop of dense foliage is likely intended to catch as much light as possible between the canopy and shrubs.

The presence of such a strange tree suggests that this is a time when plants, which had only recently colonized the Earth, were experimenting with many different forms and strategies, Gastaldo said.

The king indicated that in the case of the form he took “Sanfordiacolis”We do not see him before this time and we do not see him after. So it’s a bit of a failed experiment.”

So he said, Sandfordiacoles It was a fleeting success – further digging led researchers to find four more specimens, and it turned out that many of its leaves and twigs had been previously collected, although unrecognized, suggesting that it was a very common plant in its forest.

More similar modern plants such as tree ferns and palms have much fewer leaves and did not evolve until later.

What does it tell us about ancient forests?

Paleobotanical researchers who were not involved in the study were excited by the implications of what forests looked like 350 million years ago.

Cindy Lowe is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who teaches a course in paleobotany, studying how ancient plants responded to major environmental changes, such as mass extinctions and melting ice. She said she was blown away by what the tree would have looked like.

“This plant must have looked almost like a giant umbrella if you were standing underneath it. Hardly any light escapes from this plant,” she said. “It’s a very unusual and wonderful idea.”

Will Matthews is a postdoctoral researcher at Trinity College Dublin, measuring and incorporating fossil plants into simulations of ancient ecosystems.

Although plants this old generally look strange, “this is the top of the heap in terms of an unusual-looking tree,” he said.

“It sounds like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, I guess,” he said, not knowing that the study’s authors had come to the same conclusion.

Both Lowe and Matthews said that finding a complete tree with its trunk, branches and leaves is extremely rare. But they were very excited because this tree provides the first evidence that forests were complex enough to contain a middle layer of plants, even 350 million years ago, between the canopy and the shrubs.

“They look back at a time when we didn’t really know what a forest ecosystem looked like,” Matthews said. “Discoveries like this are groundbreaking in this sense.”

The new study was supported by scientific and research funding from the governments of Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and the New Brunswick Ministry of Natural Resources and Energy Development.

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