The World’s First Forest

If you had to guess, where would you place the planet’s oldest forest?

The world’s oldest known tree – a bristlecone pine called Methuselah – is nearly 5,000 years old. Technical definitions of “forest” are nebulous, but they largely revolve around biomes that contain numerous trees. Forests see trees come and go, some reaching glorious heights and dizzying ages, but the forest itself is an entity that outlasts individual arboreal entities. Methuselah might be Earth’s most elderly tree but Methuselah’s forest likely touts many more than five millennia.

Thinking of ancient woodlands, the world’s great rainforests seem like good candidates to answer our initial query. They contain many, albeit shrinking, zones that haven’t been explored by humans. These dense superclusters must have developed over millions of years, becoming ecological juggernauts along the way. Perhaps the grandmother of all rainforests – the Amazon – might be the oldest?

The Amazon is, indeed, old. Very old. 55 million years old, by some estimates. Yet, several forests date her. Malaysia’s Taman Negara is more than 130 million years old. The Borneo Lowland Rainforest emerged more than 140 million years in the past. Scientists peg the oldest, however, to the south of those two elder forests. Australia’s Daintree Rainforest might be more than 180 million years old! This trio is so old that they were sucking carbon from the atmosphere when the dinosaurs still roamed the planet.

Australia's Daintree Rainforest - photo by Bod

Queensland’s Daintree wears the crown for extant forests, but it was not Earth’s first forest. Where might you imagine the very first copse developed?

If you reckoned Upstate New York, you reckoned correctly!

A far cry from the rainforests of the Southern Hemisphere, the rural portions of what is today Northeast America might have been the birthplace of forests.

The earliest trees evolved from ferns. Like their older relatives, the first trees reproduced with spores, before transforming into gymnosperms. These plants were known as the horsetails, lycophytes, and the non-creative but apt tree ferns. The current scientific candidate for the oldest tree belongs to the genus Wattieza (also known as Eospermatopteris, thanks to a fossil conundrum that led scientists to believe the genera were distinct for over a century). Fossils of these trees were discovered in New York in 2007, dated to the Middle Devonian epoch. This timeline puts the emergence of the first tree on Earth at 385 million years ago.

An extinct lycophyte, a type of early tree - graphic from Popular Science
A tree fern in the rainforest of Dominica - © Hans Hillewaert

As we discussed previously, a single tree does not a forest make. Wattieza might have been the first trees to evolve, but they didn’t necessarily have to constitute the first forests.

Scientists believe the initial trees, like many other types of plants, sprung up around streams, likely as individuals. Some botanists define forests as more than a collection of trees. Certain distinctions, such as having root systems large enough to create soil and trees high enough to cast shade, are necessary to create a distinct biome. Once a group of trees can provide shade, make soil, and add nutrients through the shedding of leaves, the area over which they stand sentinel can foster other organisms that would have been unsustainable without them.

Though researchers discovered Wattieza in Upstate New York, these alpha trees might not have formed the first forest. But we already stated the first forest lived in Upstate New York. What gives?

As it turns out, Upstate New York was the hopping early locale for tree-related parties.

A fossilized Wattieza casasii, the genus of the potential first tree - photo by AstroboyUltra

In 1920, officials in New York ordered a dam to be built in Schoharie County, in the Catskill Mountains. As they excavated part of the site, workers uncovered upright, fossilized tree stumps. For nearly a hundred years, paleobotanists thought these stumps belonged to Eospermatopteris, but they had no idea how the top of the trees appeared. This site became known as the Gilboa Fossil Forest. In 2007, researchers reported they had remarkably found a 26-foot Wattieza fossil that matched the stumps in Gilboa. All along, the two genera were the same. This confluence of dam serendipity, fossil sleuthing, and natural history would make a fantastic story when it comes to the world’s oldest forest. And, for many years, the Gilboa Fossil Forest held that distinction at 380 million years.

But Upstate New York wasn’t done yet.

Gilboa tree fossil
An Eospermatopteris stump at Gilboa - photo from Gilboa Museum

Just 25 miles east of Gilboa is Cairo, New York. There, scientists located another fossilized forest. This one predated Gilboa by about 5 million years, with carbon dating coming in at 385 million years ago. Populating this grove was a genus, called Archaeopteris. Though Wattieza appears to have joined planet Earth before Archaeopteris, it seems the latter was better suited to forest building. Archaeopteris created root systems similar to modern trees, allowing them to produce copious amounts of soil. Fossils indicate they could have grown to at least 33 feet, which would provide ample shade.

Binghamton University paleobotanist William Stein believes Gilboa and Cairo were likely linked at some point, though evidence of Archaeopteris only exists at Cairo. Another expert, North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Patricia Gensel, told Smithsonian Magazine, “This [discovery] pushes … [the origins] of this kind of root system back in time. By the mid-Devonian, we have pretty sophisticated trees. Before this, we never would’ve been able to say that.”

The preserved root system of Archaeopteris - photo by Charles Ver Straeten

Perhaps somewhere out there, another set of fossilized trees holds a forest older than Cairo and Gilboa. Even if that were true, the age of these forests is staggering. The first dinosaurs rose approximately 230 million years ago. By that point, roots had permeated the ground in Cairo, New York, for more than 150 million years.

Tree enthusiasts can visit the ancient trees in New York. Exhibits at the Gilboa Museum can allow humans a tree hug nearly 400 million years in the making.

Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *