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The Complex Structure of the Ancient Cladoxylopsid Tree Baffled Scientists

24 October 2017

Fossils from the oldest known trees hundreds of millions of years ago reveal not only a complex biology, but looked vastly different to ones today. Ancient trees, scientists say, were way more complicated.

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.

New layers of xylem produce what we know as "growth rings". Understanding the structure and growth of cladoxylopsids informs the analysis of canopy competition within early forests with the potential to drive global processes.

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These strands, known as xylem, are responsible for conducting water from a tree's roots to its branches and leaves. During a tree's rapid growth period, the xylem cells grow large with thin walls and the rings look light-colored.

Researchers from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, Cardiff University and the State University of NY conducted the research based on well preserved fossils of tree trunks unearthed in China's Xinjiang Uygur region.

The strands in the ancient tree created a finely tuned network of water pipes where each xylem strand created its own growth ring - essentially, the xylem had formed "mini-trees" inside a bigger tree.

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Berry, along with others colleagues at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology and State University of NY, were amazed by the rich dispersion of xylem they encountered.

In the cross-section of a tree trunk, each ring represents a single year that the tree has been on the planet.

Dr Chris Berry, one of the scientists from the University of Cardiff, said: "There is no other tree that I know of in the history of the Earth that has ever done anything as complicated as this". This mechanism led to the characteristic flat base and bulbous shape for which cladoxylopsids are famous.

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The object of the scientists' study was the fossil of a cladoxylopsid tree, found in the northwestern part of China. These fossils suggest that earth's earliest forest trees were able to achieve great size by a unique method that involved building a hollow cylindrical skeleton of interconnected, growing, woody strands that both tore itself apart and collapsed under its own weight in a controlled manner as the tree's diameter expanded.