Scientists just discovered an incredibly preserved 298-million-year-old forest buried deep beneath a coal mine in Wuda, China. The ancient forest in Inner Mongolia was preserved by volcanic ash, much like Pompeii. Both Chinese and American scientists are marveling at finds of 80-foot-tall trees from the Permian Era, which provide an incredible snapshot of plant life 298 million years ago.
Lead by the University of Pennsylvania’s Herman Pfefferkorn, the scientists have been studying the fossilized forest and they published a paper this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists. The site was unearthed by machine when mining for the coal that lies above the forest. Over 3,300 square feet of the ancient forest have been examined thus far in the layers of ash spewed by a volcano from another time.
The Permian period trees were alive at the time that the continents were connected into the super continent, Pangea. Six groups of trees were discovered in the forest, including low tree ferns, 80-foot-high Sigillaria and Cordaites trees, and even an extinct spore-bearing tree called Noeggerathiales. The ash preserved these trees so well that Pfefferkorn and his team could find branches with leaves attached.
Scientists estimate that the preserving layer of volcanic ash fell over several days, totally engulfing the sprawling forest. The plants and trees that grew over the ash several hundred million years after were then slowly turned into the coal that is mined today. If it were not for the volcanic eruption, this forest would have turned into coal as well. This magnificent window to the ancient past is a rare time capsule that allows scientists to study Pangean Earth.
The fossil forest is located in Inner Mongolia, in the northern region of the Helanshan Mountains. The area preserved by the volcanic ash is suspected to be a staggering 6.2 miles in length – almost the full length of the coal mine, which is 7.72 square miles in area.
Thus far, the scientists have explored only 10,763 square feet of the ashen fossil forest, uncovering a multitude of leaf, tree, and plant fossils, some of which still bearing a greenish hue. An array of ferns have been found in addition to extinct trees with leaves still attached to the stem, and branches leading down to their trunks. The volcanic fossils give an accurate indication of where each plant grew in relation to the others in the forest.