Pompeii-like, a 300-million-year-old tropical forest was preserved in ash when a volcano erupted in what is today northern China. A new study by University of Pennsylvania paleobotanist Hermann Pfefferkorn and colleagues presents a reconstruction of this fossilized forest, lending insight into the ecology and climate of its time.
Pfefferkorn, a professor in Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science , collaborated on the work with three Chinese colleagues: Jun Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Yi Zhang of Shenyang Normal University and Zhuo Feng of Yunnan University.
Their paper was published this week in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study site, located near Wuda, China, is unique as it gives a snapshot of a moment in time. Because volcanic ash covered a large expanse of forest in the course of only a few days, the plants were preserved as they fell, in many cases in the exact locations where they grew.
"It’s marvelously preserved," Pfefferkorn said. "We can stand there and find a branch with the leaves attached, and then we find the next branch and the next branch and the next branch. And then we find the stump from the same tree. That’s really exciting."
The researchers also found some smaller trees with leaves, branches, trunk and cones intact, preserved in their entirety.
Due to nearby coal-mining activities unearthing large tracts of rock, the size of the researchers’ study plots is also unusual. They were able to examine a total of 1,000 m2 of the ash layer in three different sites located near one another, an area considered large enough to meaningfully characterize the local paleoecology.
The fact that the coal beds exist is a legacy of the ancient forests, which were peat-depositing tropical forests. The peat beds, pressurized over time, transformed into the coal deposits.
The scientists were able to date the ash layer to approximately 298 million years ago. That falls at the beginning of a geologic period called the Permian, during which Earth’s continental plates were still moving toward each other to form the supercontinent Pangea. North America and Europe were fused together, and China existed as two smaller continents. All overlapped the equator and thus had tropical climates.