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Growing pains: The oldest trees on Earth ripped themselves apart, fossils show

Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Scientists have discovered 374-million-year-old tree fossils from the dawn of Earth's forests -- and found that these strange plants literally had to rip themselves apart as they grew.

The fossils, described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shed light on the nature of ancient forests and the evolution of the Earth's climate.

The Xinicaulis lignescens fossils, discovered in Xinjiang, China, are part of a group of species known as Cladoxylopsida -- plants that have no known descendants but are thought to be related to the ancestors of today's ferns and horsetails. They could grow about 10 to 12 meters (about 30 to 40 feet) tall and one meter (3 feet) wide at the base; their branches popped out of the top of the trunk, giving it a shape similar to today's palms. These branches sprouted further, tinier appendages that were not yet true leaves.

Cladoxylopsida emerged in some of Earth's earliest forests, during the mid- to early Late Devonian period, around 393 million to 372 million years ago. There were bugs, and millipedes that may have munched on dead plant matter, but by and large these trees faced no major predators -- vertebrate animals only just started getting a toehold on land in the late Devonian. These trees filled ancient forests by the millions.

Together with the other plants making up these early forest ecosystems, Cladoxylopsida helped transform Earth -- shaping rivers, pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, perhaps increasing the planet's humidity by gradually releasing water, and reducing the planet's reflectivity, too.

"It's just a fundamental change in the whole way that the Earth's system works once you put large plants in forests onto a planet," said study co-author Christopher Berry, a paleobotanist at Cardiff University.

Understanding these long-gone trees could help scientists understand the evolution of Earth's climate and biology during this pivotal time. But until now, the recovered fossils have usually been fallen, squashed trees, or natural sandstone casts of decomposing stumps. Neither gives much structural information.

"They tell you about shapes, they don't tell you very much about growth and the anatomy," Berry said.

Still, what little they could determine from these strange fossils, particularly from the stumps, had already caught their attention.

If you cut open a typical tree today, you'll find that the xylem (the woody tissue that carries water up through the tree) grows outward from the center, forming concentric rings. But in the ancient specimens, the xylem grew in individual strands that clustered only in the outer 5 centimeters (2 inches) or so of the trunks, and were joined together by a complicated network of tinier strands. The center of the tree was hollow; all this activity took place in the thick woody ring around that empty space.

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