F Rosa Rubicondior: Creationism in Crisis - Earth's Oldest Forest Was In Present-Day Dorset, UK - 390 Million Years Before Creationism's 'Creation Week'

Saturday 9 March 2024

Creationism in Crisis - Earth's Oldest Forest Was In Present-Day Dorset, UK - 390 Million Years Before Creationism's 'Creation Week'

Cliffs of the Hangman Sandstone Formation, where many of the fossils were found.
Credit: Neil Davies
Earth’s earliest forest revealed in Somerset fossils

Archaeologists have found what are believed to be the remains of the earliest forest so far discovered in Devonian sandstone rocks dated to 390 million years ago, which makes them 4 million years older than the previous record found in New York State, and means they were living almost 390 million years before creationism's 'Creation Week' when their god decided to create a small flat planet with a dome over it, centered on the Middle East.

The fossils were discovered in coastal cliffs near Minehead, Dorset, England in what is known as the Eifelian Hangman Sandstone Formation and consist of primitive trees which were ancestral to today's trees but looked more like palm trees. The discovery is the subject of a paper in the Journal of the Geological Society and a news release from the University of Cambridge, UK.

First a little about this rock formation:
What information do you have on the Eifelian Hangman Sandstone Formation of Somerset and Devon, particularly how the dates were arrived at? The Eifelian Hangman Sandstone Formation is a geological formation located in Somerset and Devon, England. It is part of the Old Red Sandstone sequence, which is known for its rich fossil record and significance in understanding the Devonian period. Here's some information about the formation and how its dates were determined:
  1. Formation Characteristics: The Hangman Sandstone Formation is primarily composed of sandstones, siltstones, and mudstones, with occasional conglomerates. These sedimentary rocks were deposited during the Eifelian Age of the Middle Devonian period, approximately 393 to 388 million years ago.
  2. Dating Methods: The age of the Hangman Sandstone Formation was determined using various dating techniques, including biostratigraphy, radiometric dating, and stratigraphic correlation.
    • Biostratigraphy: Fossils found within the formation, such as brachiopods, conodonts, and microfossils, provide valuable clues for dating. By comparing the assemblage of fossils to those found in formations of known ages, geologists can estimate the relative age of the Hangman Sandstone Formation.
    • Radiometric Dating: Radiometric dating techniques, such as uranium-lead dating or potassium-argon dating, may be applied to volcanic ash layers within or above the formation. These methods provide absolute ages for specific layers, helping to refine the overall age estimate.
    • Stratigraphic Correlation: Geologists correlate the Hangman Sandstone Formation with other formations of known ages in neighboring regions or globally. By identifying similar lithological characteristics and fossil assemblages, they can establish the relative age of the formation within the geological timescale.
  3. Regional Context: The Hangman Sandstone Formation is part of a larger geological sequence known as the Devonian Old Red Sandstone. This sequence is well-studied globally, allowing for precise dating and correlation of individual formations based on their characteristics and fossil content.
Overall, the age of the Hangman Sandstone Formation of Somerset and Devon was determined through a combination of biostratigraphy, radiometric dating, and stratigraphic correlation, providing insights into the geological history of the region during the Devonian period.
The oldest fossilised forest known on Earth – dating from 390 million years ago – has been found in the high sandstone cliffs along the Devon and Somerset coast of South West England.

The fossils, discovered and identified by researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Cardiff, are the oldest fossilised trees ever found in Britain, and the oldest known fossil forest on Earth. This fossil forest is roughly four million years older than the previous record holder, which was found in New York State.

The fossils were found near Minehead, on the south bank of the Bristol Channel, near what is now a Butlin’s holiday camp. The fossilised trees, known as Calamophyton, at first glance resemble palm trees, but they were a ‘prototype’ of the kinds of trees we are familiar with today. Rather than solid wood, their trunks were thin and hollow in the centre. They also lacked leaves, and their branches were covered in hundreds of twig-like structures.

These trees were also much shorter than their descendants: the largest were between two and four metres tall. As the trees grew, they shed their branches, dropping lots of vegetation litter, which supported invertebrates on the forest floor.

Scientists had previously assumed this stretch of the English coast did not contain significant plant fossils, but this particular fossil find, in addition to its age, also shows how early trees helped shape landscapes and stabilise riverbanks and coastlines hundreds of millions of years ago. The results are reported in the Journal of the Geological Society.
Scientists standing beside a large fossil of a tree stump.
The forest dates to the Devonian Period, between 419 million and 358 million years ago, when life started its first big expansion onto land: by the end of the period, the first seed-bearing plants appeared and the earliest land animals, mostly arthropods, were well-established.

The Devonian period fundamentally changed life on Earth. It also changed how water and land interacted with each other, since trees and other plants helped stabilise sediment through their root systems, but little is known about the very earliest forests.

Professor Neil S. Davies, first author
Department of Earth Sciences
University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.
The fossil forest identified by the researchers was found in the Hangman Sandstone Formation, along the north Devon and west Somerset coasts. During the Devonian period, this region was not attached to the rest of England, but instead lay further south, connected to parts of Germany and Belgium, where similar Devonian fossils have been found.

When I first saw pictures of the tree trunks I immediately knew what they were, based on 30 years of studying this type of tree worldwide. It was amazing to see them so near to home. But the most revealing insight comes from seeing, for the first time, these trees in the positions where they grew. It is our first opportunity to look directly at the ecology of this earliest type of forest, to interpret the environment in which Calamophyton trees were growing, and to evaluate their impact on the sedimentary system.

Dr Christopher Berry, co-author from School of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Cardiff University, Wales, UK.
Small arthropod tracks
The fieldwork was undertaken along the highest sea cliffs in England, some of which are only accessible by boat, and revealed that this sandstone formation is rich with plant fossil material from the Devonian period. The researchers identified fossilised plants and plant debris, fossilised tree logs, traces of roots and sedimentary structures, preserved within the sandstone. During the Devonian, the site was a semi-arid plain, crisscrossed by small river channels spilling out from mountains to the northwest.

This was a pretty weird forest – not like any forest you would see today. There wasn’t any undergrowth to speak of and grass hadn’t yet appeared, but there were lots of twigs dropped by these densely-packed trees, which had a big effect on the landscape.

The evidence contained in these fossils preserves a key stage in Earth’s development, when rivers started to operate in a fundamentally different way than they had before, becoming the great erosive force they are today. People sometimes think that British rocks have been looked at enough, but this shows that revisiting them can yield important new discoveries.

Professor Neil S. Davies.
This period marked the first time that tightly-packed plants were able to grow on land, and the sheer abundance of debris shed by the Calamophyton trees built up within layers of sediment. The sediment affected the way that the rivers flowed across the landscape, the first time that the course of rivers could be affected in this way.
Fossilised ripple marks on the forest floor with fossilised logs of Calamophyton trees

Credit: Neil Davies

Rocks at Porlock Weir, Somerset.
Credit: Neil Davies
More detail is given in the abstract to the team's paper in the Journal of the Geological Society, which, although the paper is stated to be open access, appears to be the only part available:

The evolution of trees and forests through the Devonian Period fundamentally changed Earth's land biosphere, as well as impacting physical environments and geomorphology by stabilizing sediment and interacting with flowing air and water. From the mid Givetian Age onwards, lignophyte flora are known to have been key parts of the machinery in the ‘Devonian Landscape Factory’, but the impact of earlier forests, dominated by less woody cladoxylopsids, are not as well understood. In this paper we report evidence for a previously unrecognized cladoxylopsid forest landscape, archived within the Eifelian Hangman Sandstone Formation of Somerset and Devon, SW England. This unit has previously been considered palaeobotanically depauperate but is here shown to contain the earliest fossil evidence for such trees in the British record, as well as the oldest known evidence globally for the relative position of standing trees: in common parlance a ‘fossil forest’. In addition to abundant fossil material attributable to the cladoxylopsid tree Calamophyton, and other early Middle Devonian flora, the sedimentary context of the plant remains sheds light on the biogeomorphic impacts of these earliest forests. The trees colonized a sizeable distributive fluvial system (DFS) that was prone to seasonal disturbance events. The nature of the sedimentary system has created a bias to those facies where biogeomorphic signatures are most frequently recorded (from the distal parts of the system), but across the DFS there is evidence of plant-sediment interactions in the form of vegetation-induced sedimentary structures, rooting features, and accumulations of plant debris. Plant remains are also found in nearshore facies adjacent to the DFS, attesting to the development of a novel non-marine/marine teleconnection from the production and export of new biological sedimentary particles. The Hangman Sandstone Formation is illustrative of the revolutionary power of cladoxylopsid trees as biogeomorphic agents, forming densely spaced forests and shedding exceptionally abundant plant debris, whilst also impacting local landforms and sediment accumulations and profoundly changing landform resilience against flood disturbance events. These findings provide evidence that the Eifelian Stage (393.3-387.7 Ma) marks the onset of tree-driven changes to physical environments that would forever change Earth's non-marine landscapes and biosphere.

Davies Neil S.; McMahon William J.; Berry Christopher M.
Earth's earliest forest: fossilized trees and vegetation-induced sedimentary structures from the Middle Devonian (Eifelian) Hangman Sandstone Formation, Somerset and Devon, SW England.
Journal of the Geological Society (2024) jgs2023-204; DOI: 10.1144/jgs2023-204

Copyright: © 2024 The authors.
Published by The Geological Society. Open access.
Reprinted under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC BY 4.0)
Apart from these fossils being dated to within that long period of Earth's history that occurred before 'Creation Week', of which the authors of the origin myths in the Bible were so obviously ignorant, there is another matter for creationists to try to find a way to ignore here:

The growth of these early trees is entirely consistent with the Theory of Evolution in respect to trees and the colonisation of the land by plants, with the formation of sedimentary deposits consisting of plant matter processed by arthropods - the first animal life to colonise the land. And with these new sedimentary deposits, with the formation of rivers as agents of erosion and land formation.

Of course, the authors of the Bible didn't see any need to explain how the rivers that ran through the land had formed because, to them, the notion of a magician making it all out of nothing with a few magic spells seems a perfectly sensible explanation.

Fortunately, most people have grown up enough to know how childish that simplistic explanation is and understand how the invocation of magic to bridge a gap in understanding, doesn't explain anything in any way useful to humankind, or in a way that relates to the way the universe works in reality.

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