Researchers in New Brunswick, Canada have made a groundbreaking discovery of 3D tree fossils that shed light on the early evolution of the Earth’s forests. The fossils, believed to be around 350 million years old, offer a unique glimpse into the architecture of trees during a time when the planet’s early forests were just beginning to emerge. The study, published in the journal Current Biology, unveils clues about a period of life on Earth of which we know little.
A team of researchers led by paleontologist and sedimentologist Robert Gastaldo uncovered five tree fossils buried alive by an earthquake in a quarry in New Brunswick. This discovery is particularly significant as complete fossil trees from Earth’s earliest forests are extremely rare. The unusually preserved fossils not only provide a Dr. Seuss-like appearance but also offer insight into the structure of early forest ecosystems.
The fossils, named “Sanfordiacaulis” in honor of the quarry owner Laurie Sanford, exhibit a unique preservation where the trunk is surrounded by over 250 spirally arranged leaves. This distinct preservation is attributed to a catastrophic earthquake-induced landslide that occurred in an ancient rift lake, burying the trees at the bottom of the lake.
Matthew Stimson, an assistant curator of geology and paleontology at the New Brunswick Museum, described the fossils as “time capsules,” offering a window into deep-time landscapes and ecosystems. The fossils reveal a failed experiment in science and evolution, providing a rare glimpse into the early stages of plant diversification as they adapted to life on land.
The existence of the Sanfordiacaulis suggests that trees of that period were beginning to occupy different ecological niches, challenging previous understandings of early forest structure. This new evidence not only enhances our understanding of early forest evolution but also offers insight into the geological events that shaped Earth’s systems at that time.
The discovery of these unique fossils opens up new possibilities for understanding the early stages of plant evolution and the complex rainforest architectures that support Earth’s biodiversity today. As researchers continue to analyze these fossils, they hope to paint a more comprehensive picture of life 350 million years ago, revealing the fascinating and often mysterious world of trees during that era.