Scientists in northern China are getting a rare glimpse into a prehistoric world, after discovering an ancient forest buried under a thick layer of volcanic ash near the Mongolian district of Wuda. An exploding volcano covered the forest in ash around 298 million years ago, preserving the forest in fossilized form much as Mount Vesuvius would do to the Roman city of Pompeii in A.D. 79.
Whereas scientists usually are forced to piece together what ancient forests may have looked like by looking at fossilized specimens from varying eras, the volcano preserved an entire ecosystem all in one shot. Evidence suggests that the volcanic blast came from as many as 100 kilometers away. Falling ash ripped leaves from branches and knocked down trees, then buried the ruined forest.
As reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists from the University of Pennsylvania, Shenyang Normal University and Yunnan University have been able to reconstruct around 10,000 square feet of the forest. Full of plant species that have long been extinct, the preserved ecosystem gives them an unusually detailed look into the flora that existed in the region.
At the time the forest was preserved, today’s continents did not exist, and Earth’s land still formed the single large mass that scientists have called Pangaea. The scientists believe the ancient forest sat on the edge of a large tropical island off Pangaea’s eastern shore. It was swampy, with a layer of peat and a few inches of standing water covering the ground. Above a canopy of ferns, taller trees resembling feather dusters stood some 25 meters high. The group has identified six different species of trees, including the tall Sigillaria and Cordaites and the smaller spore-bearing Noeggerathiales, believed to be close relatives of the earliest ferns.
The scientists found no evidence of animal life, such as insects or ancient amphibians. Most peat forests like this one died out millions of years earlier, drying out as the supercontinent formed and ending up further inland. According to U. Penn paleobiologist Hermann Pfefferkorn, the forest discovered in Wuda is “like Pompeii….It’s a time capsule and therefore it allows us now to interpret what happened before or after much better.”