Entire fossilized forest found in Illinois, USA

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Image from a part of the forest. Photo Credit: Howard Falcon-Lang.

A 300 million-year-old fossilized rain forest has been found, in its entirety, outside Georgetown, Illinois, United States. Coal miners called in scientists to look at a vast and dense seam of fossils they found in a mine. It is the largest fossilized forest ever to be found. It is about the size of San Francisco, California or 10,000 hectares [10 km by 10 km] and is said to be the first rain forest ever to exist on Earth.

"The forest is composed of a bizarre mixture of extinct plants: abundant club mosses, more than 40 metres high, towering over a sub-canopy of tree ferns, intermixed with shrubs and tree-sized horsetails. Nowhere elsewhere on the planet is it possible to (literally) walk through such an extensive swathe of Carboniferous rainforest," said a press release by the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

In forests, over time, the leaves, branches and other material will build up, layer after layer with the oldest layer on the bottom, and the youngest layer at the top. The scientists observed the layers on the top of the mine shaft.

"It was an amazing experience. We drove down the mine in an armored vehicle, until we were a hundred meters below the surface. The fossil forest was rooted on top of the coal seam, so where the coal had been mined away the fossilized forest was visible in the ceiling of the mine. The fossilized forest was preserved following a major earthquake 300 million years ago," said Howard Falcon-Lang, paleobotanist with the University of Bristol, who observed the fossil.

The forest was estimated to contain trees that were more than 130 feet high. It also contained a variety of smaller trees, shrubs and ferns. One fossil was shaped like an asparagus stalk, but was the size of a small tree.

It is believed that the forest was buried in nearly a flash after the land was pushed downward, below sea level, after a massive earthquake burying the forest "forever."

"The fossilized forest was preserved following a major earthquake 300 million years ago. The quake caused the whole region to drop below sea level whereupon the forest became buried in mud, preserving it forever," added the press release.

The forest is dated to have been alive in the Carboniferous period.