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For almost a century, researchers from around the world have flocked to an area near the Gilboa Dam in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York to examine the fossilized stumps of tremendous trees that predate man and dinosaur.

Frank Mannolili

The Devonian-era tree trunks were first uncovered in the 1920s when excavation for the Gilboa Dam, a New York City water project, began. They seized the imagination and piqued the curiosity of scholars and naturalists the world round because they represented the remains of “aforestation.” That process — the original greening of the Earth — some 380 million years ago had a major impact on the planet’s climate, weather, carbon cycling and, ultimately, what kinds of animals evolved in certain ecosystems.

Decade after decade, no matter how long or hard scientists studied the tree trunks, they could only guess at what the Earth’s first treetops had looked like. Just as there was no solid proof of how tall the trees had stood in their prime, there was no way to corroborate or to disprove any conjectured “treetop” reconstructions.

A few ambitious drawings pictured the treetops as giant seed ferns or as closely resembling a modern palm tree. An early researcher, Winifred Goldring of the New York State Museum, gave the trees the name Eospermatopteris because she also guessed that the trees looked like tall seed ferns.

But like a root system tenaciously holding on long after the tree is felled, the mystery refused to be unearthed.

Then, a few years ago, a call from researchers at the New York State Museum in Albany to paleobotanist William Stein at Binghamton University changed all that. The call was to report the discovery of an “odd specimen,” a fossil with an extensive trunk system and a crown attached.

“I just dropped my jaw,” Stein, an associate professor of biological sciences, recalled about his first examination of the specimen. “I could not believe what I was seeing. It’s astonishingly large and more complete than seen before.”

The fossil, more than 12 feet long, offered the first evidence of how big and complex the Earth’s first trees were and what their tops, or “aerial portions,” looked like.

Last year, the prestigious British journal Nature published the findings of Stein and his colleagues, Frank Mannolini, Linda VanAller Hernick and Ed Landing of the New York State Museum as well as Christopher Berry of Cardiff University in the United Kingdom. The discovery created a stir, earning stories in Discover, New Scientist and newspapers around the world.

Stein and his colleagues now can credibly say that the trees, which predate the earliest dinosaurs by about 135 million years, were more than 26 feet tall, with a system of frond-like but leafless branches at their very tops. The trees were bigger and more complex than scientists had guessed, with a long trunk and small anchoring roots.

The crown belongs to a previously known plant taxon, the cladoxylopsid Wattieza. But the trunk and base match a different group, named Eospermatopteris. The Cladoxylopsida is a class of big vascular plants with spectacular morphology for their time.

“We now really have these trees nailed,” Stein said. “We solved a mystery that’s been around for 100 years. It looks remarkably tree fern-like.”

The State Museum was able to collect the fossil the way dinosaur skeletons often are collected, which is unusual for this kind of work. Nearby, a second 19-foot-long fossil was recovered, reinforcing some of the data offered by the first.

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