Palaeontology: The primeval forest of Devon and Sussex - Triops Galaxy

Palaeontology: The primeval forest of Devon and Sussex in England

386 million years ago, a forest thrived along the current Devon and Sussex coasts in England. These fossils are a further four million years older than the previous record holder, which was discovered in New York in the United States. Its remains form the oldest documented forest in the history of the earth to date, as Neil Davies from the University of Cambridge and his team report in the Journal of the Geological Society. The fossilised plants are also the earliest trees ever found in the UK.

Numerous invertebrates

The dating goes back to the Middle Devonian, when life was increasingly spreading on land. The first seed-bearing plants had developed by the end of this period and many invertebrates had adapted to life on land. These had split into numerous new species. “The Devonian had a major impact on life on Earth,” noted Neil Davies. “It also changed the interactions between water and land, as trees and other plants stabilised sediments through their roots.” In addition, the water cycle changed as the plants also evaporated water.

The remains belong to a group of plants called Calamophyton, which resemble palms but are more closely related to ferns than palms. Their trunks were hollow, and instead of leaves they had numerous thin branches that branched out further and further and through which they photosynthesised. In addition, these trees were significantly smaller than today’s representatives, which is why the forest at that time already reached a maximum height of four metres. On the way up, the plants regularly lost their lower branches, which led to a thick layer of litter in which numerous invertebrates probably lived.

The discovery of the fossils came as a bit of a surprise to the team, as they had hardly expected to find any fossilised remains in the sandstone cliffs around Minehead. Some of these formations are only accessible by boat and after a climb. In fact, the team identified numerous fossilised plants, including their trunks, fallen branches and the remains of root canals. During the Devonian period, the region had a rather dry climate, but a river cut through the landscape, along the banks of which the forest thrived.

Sladjan Lazic

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