By: Robert and Johanna Titus

Many things come to mind when you mention the Catskills to people; they think of glorious old resorts, or skiing and hiking in a beautiful mountain setting, but if you're a scientist, as we are, you understand that the Catskills are also famous for containing the world's oldest forest, the Gilboa Forest. during a brief period in 2010, because of repairs to the dam on the Schoharie Reservoir, a slice of that ancient forest was uncovered once again.

The original discoveries in Gilboa were made back in rhe 1920s in a location called the Riverside Quarry. That's just upstream, on the right side, from where the Route 990v Bridge crosses Schoharie Creek. Back then the quarry was actively providing stone for the Gilboa Dam. A horizon of dark shale was discovered with petrified tree stumps. These, at the time, were reckoned to be the oldest known fossil trees and that made the discovery a big one. Some 200 of the stumps were uncovered. They all belonged to a very primitive species of tree called Eospermatoperis. The downside was that little, other than the stumps, was found from these trees. That problem waited about 80 years to be solved when the rest of the tree, the trunk and foliage, was found at a quarry in the eastern Catskills.

Artist conception of the Devonian Forest using recent fossil discoveries as reference. Created by Kristen V.H. Wyckoff.

 A Frustrating Situation

But it was frustrating for modern scientists who could not research the original site. It had been covered over with fill and left hidden since the early 1920s. Then, in 2010 while work was underway renovating the Gilboa Dam, the ancient forest floor was once again uncovered, but only for two short weeks to allow a select group of researchers to explore the original 1920s location. Paleobotany, as it is called, has improved considerably over the decades and a team, Ied by SUNY Binghamton's botanist Dr. William Stein, was chosen to study the site.

They went right to work, cleaning off a full 1,200 square meters of ledge and surveying what was there to be seen. The results were worth the effort. Previously, only one species of tree, Eospermatopteris, had been known, but careful study revealed two others. That first form, Eospermatopteris, was a very primitive sort of "tree." lt is thought to have had a long straight hollow trunk with no branches. Its foliage lacked anything that could be called a leaf; there were photosynthetic and reproductive branches instead. It had a primitive broad rounded bottom with very skinny and very numerous rootlets, all enabling it to root itself in a marshy coastal wetland. Eospermatopteris is the large tree in the left center of our illustration pictured above. drawn by Gilboa artist Kristen'Wyckoff' With its fragile hollow trunk and an absence of wood. This tree must have grown fast but did not live long. It was prone to being blown or knocked down easily. It was a very early and very primitive effort at evolving a tree.

The second sepecies of tree did have wood and may have lived a lot longer, but it was truly bizarre. It is a type of tree called an aneurophytalean. It had a peculiar long curving stem that reached out across the ground until it found a standing tree and used it for support, growing up the trunk. We have heard this form sometimes called a “snake tree.” It too had tiny roots, growing out of it ground-hugging stem. It did have foliage and that is portrayed in Kristen Wyckoff’s drawing.

These first two species are bizarre, primitive terrestrial plants, just the sort of things you would expect in the early evolution of land plants. The third species, however, was a good bit more familiar to the research team. It even has a common name and you may know it. It is an early form of “club moss.” Club mosses, also called “ground pine.” are common in the Catskills today. None of today’s forms, however, are much more then a few inches tall. The fossil Gilboa versions grew into tree-sized plants called Lycopods and they are common throughout younger Devonian strata but the specimens found at the Gilboa site are the oldest known to science. They push back the age range of the group. Two of them are portrayed on the right side of Kristen’s drawing.

All in all, it was a fine piece of scientific research that was done in 2010. The shameful part is that this location has, once again, been buried. As we write, great heaps of earth and boulders lie atop this priceless scientific location. It is again lost to science.

 About The Authors

Robert Titus is well known to Catskill residents for his article in Kaatskill Life magazine. He teaches in the geology department at Hartwick College. Johanna Titus has recently started co-authoring those articles. She is a biologist and teaches at Dutchess Community College.
Article courtesy of the Windham Journal April 12, 2012.

 About The Painting

The Painting was created after more then a decade of new tree fossil discoveries in the Gilboa area. The new discoveries have generated more compelling theories in the field of paleobotany! The Gilboa Museum has many specimens of the new Tetraxylopteris tree fossil and the Lycopsid tree fossil on display. There are also many pieces of the Bottle brush crown that were recently discovered including the top of the Eospermatopteris (our famous Gilboa Tree Fossil.)

Visit us soon to see all of these fossils on display!