400 million year old giant fossil identified as fungus

This 2014 video is called Eight Meter Mushrooms and Other Fungi of the Devonian.

From LiveScience:

Prehistoric Mystery Organism a Humongous Fungus

By Charles Q. Choi

Special to LiveScience

posted: 23 April 2007

A giant mystery organism more than 350 million years old has finally been identified as a humongous fungus.

The enigma known as Prototaxites, which stood in branchless, tree-like trunks up to more than 20 feet tall and a yard wide, lived worldwide from roughly 420 million to 350 million years ago.

The giant was the largest-known organism of its day, living in a time when wingless insects, millipedes, worms and other creepy-crawlies dominated, as backboned animals had not yet evolved out of the oceans.

“That world was a very strange place,” said researcher C. Kevin Boyce, a University of Chicago paleobotanist.

Prototaxites has generated controversy for more than a century.

Originally classified as a conifer like a pine tree, scientists later argued that it was instead a lichen, various types of algae or a fungus.

“No matter what argument you put forth, people say, well, that’s crazy.

That doesn’t make any sense,” Boyce said. “A 20-foot-tall fungus doesn’t make any sense.

Neither does a 20-foot-tall algae make any sense, but here’s the fossil.”

Strange world

Simple vascular plants, the ancestors of the familiar conifers, ferns and flowering plants of today, had established themselves on land 40 million years before the appearance of Prototaxites, but the tallest among them stood no more than a couple feet high.

“Initially, they’re just stems,” Boyce said. “They don’t have roots. They don’t have leaves. They don’t have anything like that.”

On the inside, Prototaxites is clearly not a plant, composed as it is of interwoven tubes just five to 50 microns across (50 microns is about half the width of a human hair).

“With that anatomy, it suggests lichens, fungi or algae,” Boyce told LiveScience.

Paleobiologist Francis Hueber of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., recently revived the notion that the puzzling organism was a fungus.

He ventured to Canada, Australia and Saudi Arabia to collect specimens of Prototaxites, tediously slicing them into hundreds of thin sections and taking thousands of images of them through microscopes to determine identity.

“He built up a convincing case based on the internal structure of the beast that it was a giant fungus, but agonized over the fact that he was never able to find a smoking gun in the form of reproductive structures that would convince the world that it was indeed a fungus,” said paleobiologist researcher Carol Hotton, also of the National Museum of Natural History.

The analysis

Now chemical analyses have revealed that Prototaxites was not a plant, and was likely a fungus, findings detailed in the May issue of the journal Geology.

Hueber, Boyce, Hotton and their colleagues analyzed carbon isotopes in Prototaxites and plants that lived in the same environment approximately 400 million years ago.

Isotopes of an element all have the same number of protons in their atomic nuclei but different amounts of neutrons.

Invasive Fungi Wreak Havoc on Species World-Wide [Slide Show]: here.

Wattieza fossil trees: here.

Gilboa fossil trees: here.

Radiation eating fungi: here.

Lichens: here.

Princeton‘s Paleobotanical Gardens: here.

8 thoughts on “400 million year old giant fossil identified as fungus

  1. Monday May 14, 2007

    Quest for oldest known tree leads to upstate quarry
    380-million-year-old fossils found near Delaware-Schoharie border

    By Michael Hill
    The Associated Press

    ALBANY — The tree stood tall and spindly in the hot sun some 380 million years ago when something toppled it, maybe a storm or an earthquake.

    It fell into water and dammed up in a muddy delta. The mud and sand on top hardened into sedimentary rock, hiding the fossilized tree for eons — until Frank Mannolini came by with a hammer and chisel.

    Over the last three years, Mannolini, fellow New York State Museum fossil hunter Linda VanAller Hernick, and others, including a Binghamton University professor, painstakingly uncovered and curated the tree crown and a separate trunk specimen found in a remote rock quarry in the Schoharie County town of Gilboa, not far from the Delaware County border.

    Their efforts were rewarded with an article in the journal Nature describing their finds as significant examples of the oldest known tree: Wattieza. The chipped-away pieces are now kept in the museum’s storerooms. A portion of a 28-foot trunk impression, put back together like a jigsaw, lays on a floor.

    “It took a lot of glue to put it back together,” Mannolini said, looking over his work, “a lot of patience.”

    The trees were found about a half-hour southwest of Albany in an area that has been on the paleontological map since 1870, when workers at a separate quarry stumbled upon a group of fossilized stumps. Shaped like big fat stone pears, the finds were dubbed the “Gilboa stumps” after the little town nearby.

    The stumps had been cited as evidence of the world’s oldest forest, but they provided only partial information about the ancient trees. It was like finding just a dinosaur leg. Scientists could only make educated guesses about what the rest of the tree looked like until Hernick and Mannolini uncovered the specimens.

    It was especially meaningful work for both of them.

    Hernick, the museum’s paleontology collection manager, had been fascinated by the Gilboa stumps since seeing them on display as a girl.

    Mannolini’s connection to the site is stranger and sadder. His younger sister, Sharon Mannolini, was the museum’s paleontology collection manager when she was killed four years ago in a car accident at age 35.

    Brother and sister both were fascinated by geology growing up. He would even would bring his sister rocks he found when he went exploring in the woods.

    He found out after her death that she had kept them her whole life.

    Mannolini landed a temporary job at the state museum and eventually earned the same position his sister held. He now has his sister’s old desk, and Sharon’s picture stares out at him.

    When he went to the quarry in 2004, he decided to start digging where his sister dug.

    That’s when he found a fossil of a tree’s crown. The tree had branches fanning out at the top, making it look like a long-handled brush. Its profile slightly resembles a palm tree, but Wattieza had no leaves. It reproduced through spores.

    “It’s a look at the way the first trees were constructed,” Hernick said.

    The 28-foot-long section of a trunk was found in the summer of 2005. Scientific analyses on the finds were performed by state paleontologist Ed Landing, paleobotanist William Stein of Binghamton University’s biological sciences department, and Christopher Berry of Cardiff University. They shared credit with the pair for the article in Nature, which said the specimens provide new insight into Earth’s earliest trees.

    Wattieza grew probably as high as 30 feet in a world yet to see flowers, reptiles or dinosaurs. But the broken branches likely helped provide a hospitable habitat for centipede-like arthropods.

    In the Devonian period, the land mass was on the latitude of Chile and warm. Now it’s at a colder upstate New York latitude, and Hernick and Mannolini do their digging in the summer. They are headed back this year.


  2. April 23, 2007

    Ancient fossil forest found by accident

    Treasure trove of extinct species discovered in old coal mine.

    by Katharine Sanderson

    Plants detonated Cambrian explosion

    Global cooling may have allowed complex animals to flourish.

    Full fossil found for the earliest trees

    Discovery provides the first view of early forests.


    * Palaeobiology and biodiversity research at Bristol University

    Geologists have found the remains of a huge underground rainforest hidden in a coal mine in Illinois. The fossil forest, buried by an earthquake 300 million years ago, contains giant versions of several plant types alive today.

    Experts say the forest was growing on top of peaty soil when an ancient tremor plunged it about 5 metres down, allowing it to be buried and fossilized beneath further layers of more recent rock. It dates from a time when North America and Europe were joined together, at the Equator — similar forests went on to be transformed into the rich coal seams of the two continents.

    The forest was discovered in 2005 by John Nelson of the Illinois State Geological Survey, who was making routine measurements in a mine in Vermilion County. He called in a team of palaeontologists to investigate the forest1. As they drove down to 100 metres below ground, they saw the forest’s remains in the glare from their miners’ lamps as they looked up at the ceiling. “You actually see roots coming down; you see tree trunks lying in the ceiling,” says Howard Falcon-Lang of the University of Bristol, UK, a member of the research team.
    Supersize tree

    “You actually see roots coming down; you see tree trunks lying in the ceiling.”
    Howard Falcon-Lang
    University of Bristol
    The forest is not the oldest to be discovered — others are known that are up to 370 million years old — it is the sheer size of the forest that is significant. It has allowed Falcon-Lang and his colleagues to show that the distribution of plant species that made up the forests in the Carboniferous era differed from region to region, rather than being randomly mixed.

    “Forests closer to the coast differed from forests slightly further inland,” says Falcon-Lang. “It is a subtle point but one that could not have been made without the great size of the sampled area,” says Kirk Johnson, chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Colorado. “Without a large area to sample, there was really no way to know.”

    The ancient forest bears little resemblance to modern equivalents. “The diversity of the first rainforests was bizarre,” says Falcon-Lang. He and his team found the remains of tree-sized clubmosses, horsetails and ferns — plants that today grow 2 or 3 metres tall, but in the ancient forest reached heights of up to 40 metres. Also surprising is the presence of remains from mangrove-like plants. “It was always assumed that mangrove plants had evolved fairly recently,” says Falcon-Lang.

    The forest probably had about 50 different plant species, although Falcon-Lang says that this is a conservative estimate. We probably lumped several similar species together as one,” he explains. Modern rainforests are more diverse, containing as many as 500 plant species per hectare.
    Imminent collapse

    This discovery also shows that the fundamental processes that guide the complexity and evolution of forests has been around for hundreds of millions of years, says Scott Hocknull, a curator at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane, Australia. “Knowing this and how it has played out so many times in history will allow ecologists to better understand the complexity of modern forest systems,” he adds.

    The forest’s long life will now be cut short — the mine is likely to collapse in the next few years and there are no plans to preserve it for the sake of the fossils. But Falcon-Lang is philosophical about losing the forest, pointing out that if it weren’t for mining, the forest would never have been discovered in the first place.

    1 DiMichele W. A., et al. Geology, 35. 415 – 418 (2007).

    Article Copyright © 2007 MacMillan Publishers Ltd


  3. Oldest fossilised forest revealed

    29 February 2012 Cardiff University

    Under embargo until 29 February 2012 18:00 GMT

    An international tea, including a Cardiff University researcher who previously found evidence of the Earth’s earliest tree, has gone one step further.

    The research team has now unearthed and investigated an entire fossil forest dating back 385 million years.

    The Gilboa fossil forest, in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, is generally referred to as ‘the oldest fossil forest’. Yet by scientific standards it has remained mythical.

    Fossils of hundreds of large tree stumps (the ‘Gilboa tree’) preserved in the rocks were discovered in the 1920s during excavation of a quarry to extract rock to build the nearby Gilboa Dam. Only sketchy information was recorded about the geological context of the fossil stumps, the soil the trees were growing in, and the spacing of trees bases. Following completion of the dam the quarry was backfilled. Until now, the only way the Gilboa fossil forest could be investigated was from museum specimens and from small exposures of other levels in nearby streams.

    In May 2010, the quarry was partially emptied as part of a dam maintenance project. Researchers were monitoring the site with contractors, Thaille Construction Company and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. Professor Bill Stein, Binghamton University and Frank Mannolini, the New York State Museum spotted that the original quarry floor had been exposed, and that the roots and positions of the trunk bases had been preserved.

    Dr Chris Berry, Cardiff School of Earth and Ocean Sciences explains: “For the first time we were able to arrange for about 1,300 square meters to be cleaned off for investigation. A map of the position of all the plant fossils preserved on that surface was made.”

    The researcher’s findings are published in the journal Nature (1st March). They describe bases of the ‘Gilboa trees’ as spectacular bowl-shaped depressions up to nearly two meters in diameter, surrounded by thousands of roots. These are known to be the bases of trees up to about 10 meters in height, that looked something like a palm tree or a tree fern. One of the biggest surprises was that the researchers found many woody horizontally-lying stems, up to about 15cm thick, which they have demonstrated to be the ground-running trunks of another type of plant [aneurophytalean progymnosperm], only previously known from its upright branches. They also found one large example of a tree-shaped club moss, the type of tree that commonly forms coal seams in younger rocks across Europe and North America.

    Dr Berry said: “All this demonstrates that the ‘oldest forest’ at Gilboa was a lot more ecologically complex than we had suspected, and probably contained a lot more carbon locked up as wood than we previously knew about. This will enable more refined speculation about the way in which the evolution of forests changed this Earth.

    “Personally, tha chance to walk on the ancient forest floor, and to imagine the plants that I have been studying as fossils for more than 20 years standing alive in the positions marked by their bases, was a career highlight. Seven years ago colleagues Linda and Frank found us a fossil of a complete Gilboa tree. That was amazing. But this time we’ve got the whole forest!”


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