World’s oldest trees, new research

This video from the USA says about itself:

Devonian forest

4 November 2013

This scene is excerpted from the Colorado Geology: Devonian-Mississippian video (in progress). These trees are the Progymnosperm Archaeopteris, and the forest floor includes Racophyton. Major soils did not develop until the first trees evolved on land.

Animation by Joseph Rogers and Leo Ascarrunz. Special thanks to Ian Miller and James Hagedorn (DMNS) for their input.

Interactive Geology Project, University of Colorado-Boulder.

From Cardiff University in Wales:

Fossils from the world’s oldest trees reveal complex anatomy never seen before

Intricate web of woody strands inside 374-million-year-old tree trunks point to most complicated trees to have ever grown on Earth

The first trees to have ever grown on Earth were also the most complex, new research has revealed.

Fossils from a 374-million-year-old tree found in north-west China have revealed an interconnected web of woody strands within the trunk of the tree that is much more intricate than that of the trees we see around us today.

The strands, known as xylem, are responsible for conducting water from a tree’s roots to its branches and leaves. In the most familiar trees the xylem forms a single cylinder to which new growth is added in rings year by year just under the bark. In other trees, notably palms, xylem is formed in strands embedded in softer tissues throughout the trunk.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists have shown that the earliest trees, belonging to a group known as the cladoxlopsids, had their xylem dispersed in strands in the outer 5 cm of the tree trunk only, whilst the middle of the trunk was completely hollow.

The narrow strands were arranged in an organised fashion and were interconnected to each other like a finely tuned network of water pipes.

The team, which includes researchers from Cardiff University, Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, and State University of New York, also show that the development of these strands allowed the tree’s overall growth.

Rather than the tree laying down one growth ring under the bark every year, each of the hundreds of individual strands were growing their own rings, like a large collection of mini trees.

As the strands got bigger, and the volume of soft tissues between the strands increased, the diameter of the tree trunk expanded. The new discovery shows conclusively that the connections between each of the strands would split apart in a curiously controlled and self-repairing way to accommodate the growth.

At the very bottom of the tree there was also a peculiar mechanism at play — as the tree’s diameter expanded the woody strands rolled out from the side of the trunk at the base of the tree, forming the characteristic flat base and bulbous shape synonymous with the cladoxylopsids.

Co-author of the study Dr Chris Berry, from Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, said: “There is no other tree that I know of in the history of Earth that has ever done anything as complicated as this. The tree simultaneously ripped its skeleton apart and collapsed under its own weight while staying alive and growing upwards and outwards to become the dominant plant of its day.

“By studying these extremely rare fossils, we’ve gained an unprecedented insight into the anatomy of our earliest trees and the complex growth mechanisms that they employed.

“This raises a provoking question: why are the very oldest trees the most complicated?”

Dr Berry has been studying cladoxylopsids for nearly 30 years, uncovering fragmentary fossils from all over the world. He’s previously helped uncovered a previously mythical fossil forest in Gilboa, New York, where cladoxylopsid trees grew over 385 million years ago.

Yet Dr Berry was amazed when a colleague uncovered a massive, well-preserved fossil of a cladoxylopsid tree trunk in Xinjiang, north-west China.

“Previous examples of these trees have filled with sand when fossilised, offering only tantalising clues about their anatomy. The fossilised trunk obtained from Xinjiang was huge and perfectly preserved in glassy silica as a result of volcanic sediments, allowing us to observe every single cell of the plant,” Dr Berry continued.

The overall aim of Dr Berry’s research is to understand how much carbon these trees were capable of capturing from the atmosphere and how this effected Earth’s climate.


Fossil prehistoric amphibians died young

This 2011 video is called 360 Million Year Old Tetrapod Acanthostega.

From Science News:

Preteen tetrapods identified by bone scans

Improved technique suggests large four-limbed Acanthostega were still juveniles

By Susan Milius

1:00pm, September 7, 2016

Better bone scanning of fossils offers a glimpse of preteen life some 360 million years ago.

Improved radiation scanning techniques reveal accumulating growth zones in chunks of four fossil upper forelimb bones from salamander-shaped beasts called Acanthostega, scientists report online September 7 in Nature. Vertebrate bones typically show annual growth zones diminishing in size around the time of sexual maturity. But there’s no sign of that slowdown in these four individuals from East Greenland’s mass burial of Acanthostega, says study coauthor Sophie Sanchez of Uppsala University in Sweden. They were still juveniles.

The bones came from tropical Greenland of the Devonian Period. Aquatic vertebrates were developing four limbs, which would serve tetrapods well when vertebrates eventually conquered land. This mass die-off doomed at least 20 individuals, presumably when a dry spell after a flood trapped them all in a big, vanishing puddle.

This find makes the strongest case yet for identifying genuine youngsters among ancient tetrapods, Sanchez says. She suspects other individuals trapped could have been juveniles too.

Not many other species were found in the mass burial. So young tetrapods may have stuck together much as today’s young fish schools, Sanchez speculates. The limb shape clearly indicates that the youngsters took a long time to start adding hard bone to the initial soft cartilage, she says. So these early tetrapods were at least 6-year-olds and probably 10 years old or more.

For identifying stages of life, the improved technique “allows greater resolution and rigor, so in that regard it is a plus,” says Neil Shubin of the University of Chicago, who studies a fossil fish with some tetrapod-like features called Tiktaalik. There are Tiktaalik preteens, too, he notes.

What interests Nadia Fröbisch of Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin is that some of Acanthostega individuals were different sizes but had reached the same stage of bone development. She muses that they might even have been developing along different trajectories of growth, a flexibility that would be useful in a changeable environment.

Animals emerged from the water and clamored onto land more than 300 million years ago, but paleontologists are looking for even more details about the transition. A healed broken bone that later fossilized is offering some new and unexpected clues. A new fossil from Australia pushes back the origin of tetrapods, or four-limbed animals, more than two million years. The creature, Ossinodus, lived during the Devonian Period 333 million years ago in what would have been temperate forests: here.

380-million-year old tropical forest discovery in Svalbard

This video from the USA says about itself:

Devonian forest

4 November 2013

This scene is excerpted from the Colorado Geology: Devonian-Mississippian video (in progress). These trees are the Progymnosperm Archaeopteris, and the forest floor includes Racophyton. Major soils did not develop until the first trees evolved on land.

From Geology:

Lycopsid forests in the early Late Devonian paleoequatorial zone of Svalbard

Christopher M. Berry and John E.A. Marshall


The Middle to early Late Devonian transition from diminutive plants to the first forests is a key episode in terrestrialization. The two major plant groups currently recognized in such “transitional forests” are pseudosporochnaleans (small to medium trees showing some morphological similarity to living tree ferns and palms) and archaeopteridaleans (trees with woody trunks and leafy branches probably related to living conifers).

Here we report a new type of “transitional” in-situ Devonian forest based on lycopsid fossils from the Plantekløfta Formation, Munindalen, Svalbard. Previously regarded as very latest Devonian (latest Famennian, 360 Ma), their age, based on palynology, is early Frasnian (ca. 380 Ma). In-situ trees are represented by internal casts of arborescent lycopsids with cormose bases and small ribbon-like roots occurring in dense stands spaced ∼15–20 cm apart, here identified as Protolepidodendropsis pulchra Høeg. This plant also occurs as compression fossils throughout most of the late Givetian–early Frasnian Mimerdalen Subgroup.

The lycopsids grew in wet soils in a localized, rapidly subsiding, short-lived basin. Importantly, this new type of Middle to early Late Devonian forest is paleoequatorial and hence tropical. This high-tree-density tropical vegetation may have promoted rapid weathering of soils, and hence enhanced carbon dioxide drawdown, when compared with other contemporary and more high-latitude forests.

Origins of insects and flying

This video from the USA is called Evolution – Part 2 of 7 – Great Transformations (PBS Documentary).

From Wildlife Extra:

Insects were first to fly

Insects were the first type of living creature to develop wings and learn to fly, new research shows.

“Our research shows that insects originated at the same time as the earliest land-based plants, about 480 million years ago,” Director of CSIRO‘s Australian National Insect Collection and one of the authors on the paper David Yeates said.

“Then, about 400 million years ago, ancient ancestors of today’s dragonflies and mayflies were the first to develop wings – giving them the ability to fly long before any other animal could do so.

“This was at about the same time that land-based plants developed height, showing they were able to rapidly adapt to their changing environment.

The findings also confirm that while biodiversity crises led to mass extinction events in many other groups, such as dinosaurs, insects continued to survive and diversify by quickly adapting to new situations and opportunities that arose.

Lead researcher for the study, Professor Bernhard Misof from the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig in Bonn, Germany, said that insects were the most species rich organisms on Earth.

“They are of immense ecological, economic and medical importance and affect our daily lives, from pollinating our crops to vectoring diseases,” Professor Misof said.

“We can only start to understand the enormous species richness and ecological importance of insects with a reliable reconstruction of how they are related.”

See also here.

Devonian era animals and plants

This video is called Devonian forest.

From LiveScience:

Devonian Period: Climate, Animals & Plants

By Mary Bagley, Live Science Contributor

February 22, 2014 03:46am ET

The Devonian Period occurred from 416 million to 358 million years ago. It was the fourth period of the Paleozoic Era. It was preceded by the Silurian Period and followed by the Carboniferous Period. It is often known as the “Age of Fishes,” although significant events also happened in the evolution of plants, the first insects and other animals.

Climate and geography

The supercontinent Gondwana occupied most of the Southern Hemisphere, although it began significant northerly drift during the Devonian Period. Eventually, by the later Permian Period, this drift would lead to collision with the equatorial continent known as Euramerica, forming Pangaea.

The mountain building of the Caledonian Orogeny, a collision between Euramerica and the smaller northern continent of Siberia, continued in what would later be Great Britain, the northern Appalachians and the Nordic mountains. Rapid erosion of these mountains contributed large amounts of sediment to lowlands and shallow ocean basins.  Sea levels were high with much of western North America under water. Climate of the continental interior regions was very warm during the Devonian Period and generally quite dry.

Marine life

The Devonian Period was a time of extensive reef building in the shallow water that surrounded each continent and separated Gondwana from Euramerica. Reef ecosystems contained numerous brachiopods, still numerous trilobites, tabulate and horn corals. Placoderms (the armored fishes) underwent wide diversification and became the dominant marine predators. Placoderms had simple jaws but not true teeth.  Instead, their mouths contained bony structures used to crush or shear prey. Some Placoderms were up to 33 feet (10 meters) in length. Cartilaginous fish such as sharks and rays were common by the late Devonian. Devonian strata also contain the first fossil ammonites.

By the mid-Devonian, the fossil record shows evidence that there were two new groups of fish that had true bones, teeth, swim bladders and gills. The Ray-finned fish were the ancestors of most modern fish. Like modern fish, their paired pelvic and pectoral fins were supported by several long thin bones powered by muscles largely within the trunk. The Lobe-finned fish were more common during the Devonian than the Ray fins, but largely died out. (The coelacanth and a few species of lungfish are the only Lobe-finned fishes left today.) Lobe-finned fishes had fleshy pectoral and pelvic fins articulating to the shoulder or pelvis by a single bone (humerus or femur), which was powered by muscles within the fin itself. Some species were capable of breathing air through spiracles in the skull. Lobe-finned fishes are the accepted ancestors of all tetrapods.


Plants, which had begun colonizing the land during the Silurian Period, continued to make evolutionary progress during the Devonian. Lycophytes, horsetails and ferns grew to large sizes and formed Earth’s first forests.  By the end of the Devonian, progymnosperms such as Archaeopteris were the first successful trees. Archaeopteris could grow up to 98 feet (30 meters) tall with a trunk diameter of more than 3 feet. It had a softwood trunk similar to modern conifers that grew in sequential rings. It did not have true leaves but fern-like structures connected directly to the branches (lacking the stems of true leaves). There is evidence that they were deciduous, as the most common fossils are shed branches. Reproduction was by male and female spores that are accepted as being the precursors to seed-bearing plants. By the end of the Devonian Period, the proliferation of plants increased the oxygen content of the atmosphere considerably, which was important for development of terrestrial animals. At the same time carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, was depleted from earlier levels. This may have contributed to the cooling climate and the extinction event at the end of the Devonian.


Arthropod fossils are concurrent with the earliest plant fossils of the Silurian. Millipedes, centipedes and arachnids continued to diversify during the Devonian Period. The earliest known insect, Rhyniella praecusor, was a flightless hexapod with antennae and a segmented body. Fossil Rhyniella are between 412 million and 391 million years old.

Early tetrapods probably evolved from lobe-finned fishes able to use their muscular fins to take advantage of the predator-free and food-rich environment of the new wetland ecosystems. The earliest known tetrapod is Tiktaalik rosae. Dated from the mid-Devonian, this fossil creature is considered to be the link between the lobe-finned fishes and early amphibians. Tiktaalik was probably mostly aquatic, “walking” on the bottom of shallow water estuaries. It had a fish-like pelvis, but its hind limbs were larger and stronger than those in front, suggesting it was able to propel itself outside of an aquatic environment.  It had a crocodile-like head, a moveable neck, and nostrils for breathing air.

Mass extinction

The close of the Devonian Period is considered to be the second of the “big five” mass extinction events of Earth’s history. Rather than a single event, it is known to have had at least two prolonged episodes of species depletion and several shorter periods. The Kellwasser Event of the late middle Devonian was largely responsible for the demise of the great coral reefs, the jawless fishes and the trilobites. The Hangeberg Event at the Devonian/Carboniferous Boundary killed the Placoderms and most of the early ammonites. Causes of the extinction are debated but may be related to cooling climate from CO2 depletion caused by the first forests. Although up to 70 percent of invertebrate species died, terrestrial plants and animals were largely unaffected by these extinction events.


The earliest teeth were not individual structures, but rather tough, bumpy plates that ancient fish used like sandpaper to crush and shred their food. Now, a new study reveals that for at least one species those so-called tooth plates didn’t form all at once: They expanded gradually with the accumulation of toothlike tissue as the fish grew in size. That’s the conclusion of the first detailed analysis of the tooth plates of a 400-million-year-old creature known as Romundina stellina, an armored fish that may have been among the first animals to sport teeth. A better understanding of how teeth evolved may provide clues about how other tissues—such as hearts, kidneys, and other major organs—might have developed: here.

The oldest indications for the existence of real land plants have been found in cores from boreholes in Oman. They contained fours of mutually connected spores (tetrads) enveloped by remains of the spore sac in which they had been formed. Research on the spore walls point to a relationship with the liverworts. The fossils have been found in the Middle Ordovician and are about 475 million years old: here.

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How animals learned to eat plants

This video is called Tetrapod Evolution 1 of 5.

From the University of Lincoln in England:

Land animals kept fish-like jaws for millions of years

09 May 2013 University of Lincoln

Research has confirmed how early land vertebrates, which evolved from fish, developed weight-bearing limbs and other adaptations long before their feeding systems adjusted to a vegetation-based diet.

Now, for the first time, fossil jaw measurements have demonstrated this gap in evolutionary development.

Scientists from the University of Lincoln (UK), the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the University of Oxford (UK), examined the lower jaws of 89 fossils of early tetrapods (four-footed animals) and their fish-like predecessors.

The fossils ranged in age from about 300 to 400 million years old and the team were interested in how the mechanical properties of the jaws of these animals differed through time.

They used 10 biomechanical metrics to describe jaw differences. One of these, called mechanical advantage, measured how much force an animal can transfer to its bite.

Dr Marcello Ruta, from the School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, said: “Our study is the first of its kind to address changes in biomechanical properties of the lower jaw across the transition from fish to land vertebrates using a diverse range of extinct species. This work paves the way to in-depth analyses of the rates of evolutionary transformation in other anatomical structures during this major episode in vertebrate history. It also lays the foundations for integrative research that explores themes as diverse as the origin of the first terrestrial food webs, the impact of acquisition of new structures on the diversification of major animal groups, and patterns and processes of functional change.”

So it turns out that just moving into a new environment is not always enough to trigger functional adaptations.

The team discovered that the mechanical properties of tetrapod jaws did not show significant changes in patterns of terrestrial feeding until some 40 to 80 million years after the four-legged creatures initially came out of the water. Until then, tetrapod jaws were still very fish-like, even though their owners had weight-bearing limbs and the ability to walk on land.

In the paper, which has been published in an early online edition of the journal Integrative and Comparative Biology, the authors say the results may be explained by an earlier hypothesis: a shift from gilled to lung breathing in later four-footed animals was necessary before they could adapt their jaw structure to eating plants.

This finding suggests tetrapods may have shown a limited variety of feeding strategies in the early phases of their evolution on land.

Lead author Dr Phil Anderson, from the University of Massachusetts, said: “The basic result was that it took a while for these animals to adapt their jaws for a land-based diet. They stayed essentially fish-like for a long time.”

Dr Matt Friedman, lecturer in palaeobiology at the University of Oxford, said: “The thing that is really interesting is that the diversity of jaw function didn’t really take off until around the origin of amniotes – creatures that lay hard-shelled eggs on land rather than being tied to water for reproduction like fishes and amphibians. It is in amniotes and their closest relatives that we see the first evidence for dedicated herbivory – until that point tetrapods had basically been carnivores. So this means it took at least 50 million years of evolution after the origin of features like limbs, fingers and toes before tetrapods achieved dietary diversity that began to resemble what we see today.”

The statistical methods developed in this work could be used in future studies of more subtle biomechanical patterns in fossil animals that may not be initially clear.

Devonian fossil fish discovery in Pennsylvania

This video from the USA is called Phyllolepis thomsoni, a new fossil species of armored fish.

From Drexel University in the USA:

Dusting for prints from a fossil fish to understand evolutionary change

Pennsylvania highway roadcut yields new species of armored fish from Devonian period

PHILADELPHIA (March 27, 2013) — In 370 million-year-old red sandstone deposits in a highway roadcut, scientists have discovered a new species of armored fish in north central Pennsylvania.

Fossils of armored fishes like this one, a phyllolepid placoderm, are known for the distinctive ornamentation of ridges on their exterior plates. As with many such fossils, scientists often find the remains of these species as impressions in stone, not as three-dimensional versions of their skeletons. Therefore, in the process of studying and describing this fish’s anatomy, scientists took advantage of a technique that may look a lot like it was stolen from crime scene investigators.

In the video … Dr. Ted Daeschler shows the fossil and a rubber cast made by pouring latex into its natural impression in the rock. Once the latex hardened, Daeschler peeled it out and dusted its surface with a fine powder to better show the edges of the bony plates and the shapes of fine ridges on the fish’s bony armor – a lot like dusting for fingerprints to show minute ridges left on a surface. With this clearer view, Daeschler and colleagues were better able to prepare a detailed scientific description of the new species.

This placoderm, named Phyllolepis thomsoni, is one of two new Devonian fish species described by Daeschler in the Bicentennial issue of the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, with different co-authors. The other new species is a lobe-finned fish discovered in northern Canada. This discovery is described at

Honoring A Rich History of Pennsylvania Paleontology

Daeschler, a vice president and associate curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, and an associate professor in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences, and co-author Dr. John A. Long, a leading authority on placoderms from Flinders University in Australia, named the species in honor of Dr. Keith S. Thomson.

Thomson, the Executive Officer of the American Philosophical Society, has been a mentor and colleague to many Devonian fossil researchers, including Daeschler. Thomson has formerly held positions including President and CEO of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Director of the Oxford University Museum, and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale University.

Asked for comment on the discovery named in his honor, Thomson noted his long professional connection with the Devonian fossil beds in Pennsylvania that Daeschler studies:

“The Devonian beds around Renovo PA were worked extensively by my old professor at Harvard, Alfred Sherwood Romer and his associates, in the 1950s. They got some very good material of fishes but gave up on the site as a potential source of the very earliest four-legged vertebrates. In 1965 Romer suggested that I have a go but there had been no major erosion on the sites and therefore nothing much new had become exposed. I moved on to other things, but [in 1993] when Ted asked about possible projects in PA I gave him all the old notebooks, including mine, and off he went. In the intervening period there had been some major roadwork, new exposures were made, and on the Sunday evening of his very first weekend trip Ted came to the house and showed me a part of the shoulder of a tetrapod. Once we had looked at every which way and decided there was no other explanation, he causally reached into his bag and said “in that case, I have another one.” The rest is history — a history of very hard, careful, work, a whole team of collectors, some local, and brilliant discoveries of superb material particularly of fishes of every kind. So I am delighted by the success of this work over the past twenty years and flattered to become associated with it by having a species named after me. (There is a certain symmetry to this as long ago I named one of the species that had been collected by Romer after my wife!)”