400 Million-year-old Fossilized Forest the Size of Grand Central Station Discovered in China

An ancient fossilized forest dating back over 400 million years has been discovered in China. The forest, which covered an area bigger than Grand Central Station, would have been made up of palm tree-like plants that reached around 10 feet in height.

The discovery is the earliest example of a forest in Asia—previously only two other fossil forests from this period have been discovered, with one in the U.S. and another in Norway.

Scientists from China came across the 2,700,000 square foot forest near Xinhang, in the Anhui province. It was found in a clay mine near a village, with fossilized trees visible in the walls of the quarries. The team found structures of tree trunks and pinecone-like fossils

fossil forest china
Reconstruction of the ancient fossil forest discovered in China. Zhenzhen Deng/Le Liu/Deming Wang

"Jianchuan quarry has been mined for several years and there were always some excavators working at the section," Deming Wang, from Peking University, said in a statement. "The excavations in quarries benefit our findings and research. When the excavators stop or left, we come close to the high walls and look for exposed erect lycopsid trunks. The continuous finding of new in-situ tree fossils is fantastic."

The forest dates to the Devonian period—between 419 million to 359 million years ago. At the start of this period, plant life was largely made up of rootless and leafless flora. Towards the Middle Devonian, primitive shrub-like plants emerged, including lycophytes and ferns.

Publishing their findings in Current Biology, the team say the forest was made up of lycopsid trees that had branchless trunks and leafy crowns—resembling palm trees today. Most would have been below 10 feet in height, although the tallest might have reached 25 feet. They grew in a coastal environment that would have been prone to flooding.

"The large density as well as the small size of the trees could make Xinhang forest very similar to a sugarcane field, although the plants in Xinhang forest are distributed in patches," Wang said. "It might also be that the Xinhang lycopsid forest was much like the mangroves along the coast, since they occur in a similar environment and play comparable ecologic roles."

Researchers say the discovery could provide an insight into the "rapid drop" in atmospheric carbon dioxide at the time, with potential implications for the subsequent "late Paleozoic icehouse"—formally known as the Karoo ice age.

"The Xinhang forest has large area and extensive stands of trees,and other Late Devonian forests are in progress of research at Pe-king University. These facts indicate that the early forests with significant biomass can store much more carbon through photosynthesis (especially if followed by coal deposits) and thus have more impact on CO2 decline in the Devonian than previously demonstrated," the team concludes.