Securing Cairo’s ancient forest

Photo courtesy of Charles Ver Straeten.Archaeopteris root system at the Cairo fossil forest site at first discovery.

CAIRO — Town officials passed a resolution Monday establishing their intent to protect the prehistoric forest located behind the highway garage for future generations.

A research team from Binghamton University was sifting through fossil soils at a quarry behind the Cairo Highway Department when they discovered the root system of trees thought to be 385 million years old, dating back to the Devonian age, according to a release from Binghamton University. Their discovery was published in the scientific journal Current Biology in December.

“The Town of Cairo will work collaboratively with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Greene and Columbia counties to protect, preserve and promote this unique and valuable natural resource, by developing and encouraging educational opportunities, examining our ancient past and predicting future environmental changes while welcoming visitors to our area to appreciate this site,” according to Monday’s resolution.

A proposal that the town has been working on with Assemblyman Chris Tague and state Sen. George Amedore Jr. includes estimates for fencing to protect the site, Town Supervisor John Coyne said.

“This is the first step that we’re going to take,” Coyne said Wednesday, adding that the chain-link fencing would cost about $1,500.

“We are actively working with Assemblyman Tague and Senator Amedore to attempt to secure funds to secure this location.”

The area is about 2-acres in size, Coyne said.

Both Tague and Amedore have introduced legislation on behalf of the historic forest.

“This is a monumental discovery for the Catskills and the town of Cairo,” Tague said in a statement. “Having the world’s oldest fossilized forest in our backyard is a remarkable opportunity to look into the past. It’s a treasure trove of valuable scientific data and needs to be protected for future research. This forest is another gem for Greene County, let’s preserve it for everyone to enjoy and study for years to come.”

Amedore agreed.

“This was truly an amazing and historic discovery, and I commend the research team who devoted so much time and effort to examining this site,” Amedore said in a statement. “It’s an exciting designation for the town and the region. We know the entire Catskill Region has such a rich history, and this provides more insight and knowledge into the topographical and environmental history of the area. It was a pleasure to work with Assemblyman Tague on this resolution to honor and recognize this momentous discovery.”

The site holds unlimited educational opportunities, Coyne said.

“We reached out to [Cornell Cooperative Extension] and they are very exicted about working with the town to preserve it and to use it for future generations,” he said.

Research at the site began more than a decade ago, said Dr. Christopher Berry, senior lecturer of paleobotany at Cardiff University.

“I believe that it was Charles VerStraeten at the New York State Museum who found [the roots] originally,” Berry said. “Back in 2007 I asked the paleontologists at the NYSM to take me to Cairo as there was a report of a tiny little plant there that I wanted to follow up, and so we worked in a corner of the quarry for a couple of days over the next two years.”

VerStraeten discovered the roots in 2009, Berry said, which is when William Stein, professor emeritus of biological science at Binghamton University, became involved.

“The New York State Museum invited me to come out and take a look at something they had found,” Stein said in December. “They thought it might be of interest to me.”

Stein and his team were called away from 2010 to 2012 to work at a quarry in Gilboa, which had formerly been the home of the world’s oldest forest.

The Cairo site is about 2 to 3 million years older, Stein said.

Researchers identified three unique root systems at the site: a palm-like tree called Eospermatopteris that grew opportunistically like weeds, Archaeopteris that foreshadowed seed-bearing plants to come 10 million years later and a tree belonging to the class Lyscopsida, which was previously thought to have originated during the Carboniferous period, according to the university.

“What we have at Cairo is a rooting structure that appears identical to great trees of the Carboniferous coal swamps with fascinating elongate roots,” Stein said. “But no one has yet found body fossil evidence of this group this early in the Devonian. Our findings are perhaps suggestive that these plants were already in the forest, but perhaps in a different environment and earlier than generally believed. Yet we only have a footprint, and we await additional fossil evidence for confirmation.”

The Archaetoperis was also a significant find, Berry said.

“It is the massive branching woody roots of the Archaeopteris tree, found at Cairo but not at Gilboa, which are the really important thing here,” Berry said. “This is the first time that such vast underground rooting structures are seen in a fossil forest. Archaeopteris also had a woody trunk and flat green leaves, unlike the Gilboa tree. It seems to have worked at a different physiological level.”

The research helps scientists have a better understanding of past environments, Stein said.

“It gives us a sense of the ecology of what Catskill delta forests were like,” Stein said. “Who was living with whom, what the spatial relationships were like. It’s not a matter of size, but a matter of which trees were doing what with who.”

The team’s findings can also be put into a more modern context of climate change, Berry said.

“The interactions of plant roots with soils, and the creation of wood, are both waysin which CO2 can be removed from the atmosphere on a long term basis,” Berry said. “This is important because over the course of the Devonian era, atmospheric CO2 levels fell from perhaps 10 times the level today to the same as today, and long-lived ice caps formed at the South Pole because of this. Many scientists believe that the rise of forests contributed greatly to this drop in CO2. Today we cut down forests, and let them burn, which is having the opposite effect.”

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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