Professor William Stain and his research appear in the journal Nature

William Stein, right, associate professor of biological sciences, helps place two Eospermatopteris fossils, genus of plants known from fossil stumps discovered in the 1870s near Gilboa, N.Y., at the E.W. Heier Teaching and Research Greenhouse at Science 3. Stein believes the fossils are between 370- to 380-million years old. Photo by Jonathan Cohen

by Gail Glover

The town of Gilboa in upstate New York is famous for being the location of some of the earliest tree fossils. But after a new round of excavation, scientists are piecing together a view of the floor of the world’s oldest forest that could shed new light on the role of modern-day forests and their impact on climate change. The findings by scientists at Binghamton University, Cardiff University and the New York State Museum appear in the March 1 issue of Nature, a leading international science journal.

“It was like discovering the botanical equivalent of dinosaur footprints,” said William Stein, associate professor of biological sciences at Binghamton University. “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.”

The Gilboa area has been a known tree fossil location since the late 1800s, but during the 1920s when construction of the Schoharie Dam revealed a dense stand of trees, paleontologists began to investigate the site in earnest. Named Eospermatopteris, or “ancient seed fern,” by Winifred Goldring of the New York State Museum in 1924, these earliest trees had survived only as broken standing bases and trunks, all around 1-3 feet high. But more detailed glimpses of the past emerged in 2004 and 2005, when Linda VanAller Hernick, paleontology collection manager, and Frank Mannolini, paleontology collection technician from the NYS Museum, uncovered more intact specimens, complete with crowns.

After thorough investigation by Stein and Christopher M. Berry, a paleobotany lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales, the team was able to determine that these trees actually resembled modern-day cycads or tree ferns, but interestingly enough, not related to either one. Working in conjunction with Stein, Mannolini also developed a sketch of the ancient forest.

Read more here