298 million-year-old forest found under Chinese coal mine

21 Feb

The researchers dubbed the forest the “Pompeii of the Permian period,” noting that it was covered and preserved by volcanic ash just like its Roman namesake, tech site Gizmodo said.

“Like Pompeii, this swamp forest is so perfectly maintained that scientists know where every plant originally was,” Gizmodo reported.

“It’s marvelously preserved. We can stand there and find a branch with the leaves attached, and then we find the next branch and the next branch and the next branch. And then we find the stump from the same tree. That’s really exciting,” said University of Pennsylvania paleobotanist Hermann Pfefferkorn
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He said the forest is “a time capsule,” adding the extraordinary finding “is like Pompeii.”

Pfefferkorn worked on the project with Jun Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Yi Zhang of Shenyang Normal University and Zhuo Feng of Yunnan University.

Pfefferkorn, a professor in Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science, collaborated on the work with three Chinese colleagues: Jun Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Yi Zhang of Shenyang Normal University and Zhuo Feng of Yunnan University.

The results of their findings have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Gizmodo said the researchers found entire trees and plants exactly as they were at the time of the volcanic eruption, just like archeologists in Pompeii found humans, animals and buildings at the base of Mount Vesuvius, near Naples, in the Italian region of Campania.

“Except Pompeii was buried in AD 79 and this forest was covered in ash 298 million years ago, during the Permian period,” Gizmodo said.

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Industrial coal mine

The researchers discovered the 10,763-square-foot area hidden under a coal mine using heavy industrial machinery.

They believe that this frozen-in-time fossilized forest was covered under gigantic amounts of ash that fell from the sky for days.

So far, the researchers have identified six groups of trees, some of them 80 feet tall.

Some of them are Sigillaria and Cordaites, but they also found large groups of a type called Noeggerathiales, which are now completely extinct.

During the Permian, which extends from 299 to 251 million years ago, there were no conifers or flowers.

Plants reproduced like ferns, using spores, and the modern continents were still joined in a single mass of land called Pangaea.

This geologic period happened at the end of the Paleozoic era, after the Carboniferous.

During this time, the first groups of mammals, turtles, lepidosaurs and archosaurs started to roam the Earth.

Unprecedented firsts

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The findings are indeed “firsts” on many counts.

“This is the first such forest reconstruction in Asia for any time interval, it’s the first of a peat forest for this time interval and it’s the first with Noeggerathiales as a dominant group,” Pfefferkorn said.

But Pfefferkorn added that while it alone cannot explain how climate changes affected life on Earth, it helps provide valuable context.

“It’s like Pompeii: Pompeii gives us deep insight into Roman culture, but it doesn’t say anything about Roman history in and of itself,” Pfefferkorn said. “But on the other hand, it elucidates the time before and the time after. This finding is similar. It’s a time capsule and therefore it allows us now to interpret what happened before or after much better.”

The study was supported by the Chinese Academy of Science, the National Basic Research Program of China, the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the University of Pennsylvania.

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