The Complex Structure of the Ancient Cladoxylopsid Tree Baffled Scientists

Researchers from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NIGPAS), Cardiff University (UK) and the State University of NY at Binghamton (USA) report exceptionally well-preserved fossil tree trunks approximately 374 million years old from Xinjiang, Northwest China.

According to a recently released study, the first trees that started growing on Earth were more complex than their modern-day counterparts, and at the same time, also rather freakish. The specimens belong to a group of trees known as cladoxylopsids, which are known to have existed from the Middle Devonian to the Early Carboniferous periods, from about 393 million to 320 million years ago, long before dinosaurs walked the Earth. This tissue then likely died as the tree aged and left it hollow. Basically, each tree had a mini-tree growing inside it. Each of the black dots has its own tree ring series, unlike modern trees, which usually have just one tree ring series in their trunks. The older a tree gets, the more xylem layers it accumulates, so they are responsible with producing the well-known tree rings.

That tree trunk allowed Xu and his colleagues to finally solve the mystery of how the cladoxylopsids grew.

A simplified model of the ancient tree's vascular system. Xylems are woody tubes that transport water from tree's roots to its leaves and branches.

All xylem formed a complex network, and each individual conductive strand developed its own growth rings.

This is the first time when scientists observe such a behavior in trees. Xu and his colleagues were able to slice hundreds of pieces off the fossil to examine, including looking along both the side-on and top-down angles-the equivalent of studying both the grain and rings of modern wood.

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Christopher Berry crouches next to one of the cladoxylopsid specimens found in upstate NY.

As the rings started adding over the years, and the supportive web grew, the trees began getting larger, and the xylems started pulling. This web would break but then fix itself, the researchers found by studying the volcanically preserved fossils. He says the donut-like construction would have let them grow tall and weedy and that they may have been destroyed by a catastrophe anyway, but that the cheap structure left them vulnerable to being overtaken by more organized trees.

"There is no other tree that I know of in the history of the Earth that has ever done anything as complicated as this", Chris Berry, a co-author of the study and a specialist in fossil plants at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, said in a press release.

Berry revealed that he is planning to continue studying these freakish and very complex primordial trees, ones that had a odd shape and the rather unique growing technique.

Current study findings are available in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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