Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"Pompeii of the Permian"


Photo from Picasa album "Coal Mine Fires in Wuda" by Joa Czogalla, German photographer and videographer working in China.

Beneath this smoky surface lies an incredible fossil find! A fossilized forest of trees was preserved by the ash of a volcano's eruption, preserving a moment in time much like Pompeii - though millions of years older. Time and pressure transformed the peat beds of the tropical forests into coal deposits, which are now being mined near Wuda, northern China. A research team led by University of Pennsylvania paleobotanist Hermann Pfefferkorn examined 1,000 sq. m. of the uncovered ash layer.It’s marvelously preserved. 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,” says Pfefferkorn. Smaller trees have been preserved in their entirety, with leaves, branches, trunk, and cones intact. He and his colleagues - Jun Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Yi Zhang of Shenyang Normal University, and Zhuo Feng of Yunnan University - have just published their findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (read the entire paper here). The scientists dated the ash layer, which covered the vegetation over a matter of days, to approximately 298 million years ago. They identified 6 groups of trees in 2 canopies, a lower one consisting of extinct fern-like spore-bearing trees and an upper one populated by trees that stood 80' tall (see artistic reconstructions of the living forest here). Though it represents only a moment in time, the flora will serve as a baseline for the study of other early Permian fossil floras in East Asia and globally, and contribute to a better understanding of paleoclimate evolution through time. "It’s like Pompeii: Pompeii gives us deep insight into Roman culture, but it doesn’t say anything about Roman history in and of itself, But on the other hand, it elucidates the time before and the time after. This finding is similar. It’s a time capsule and therefore it allows us now to interpret what happened before or after much better,” Pfefferkorn adds.

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