The Rise of Trees

390–350 million years (Middle DevonianEarly Carboniferous)

What was the Earth like during this period?
  • Around 390 million years ago (Middle-Late Devonian), the Earth was relatively warm and stable, allowing for rapid evolution of plants.
  • Plants were increasing in diversity and size on the land, and progressively evolving to survive away from water. 
  • During this time, competition for light caused plants to grow taller and wider, eventually evolving leaves.
  • Competition for water and minerals, caused plants to grow deeper, eventually evolving elaborate roots.
  • Internally, plants evolved tissues to both support the increased height, and transport water and minerals from roots to leaves.
  • Throughout the landscape, the first tree-like plants begin to appear.
What is a "tree"?
  • We see trees everyday, but rarely stop to think about what defines the term "tree".
    • Some people may indicate that trees are large plants, but I'm sure you have seen a small tree in your life. 
  • A loose definition would describe a tree as a plant that has a single stem coming from the ground, which can attain larger heights using specialized cells. 
  • A stricter definition indicates that trees have special tissues, called wood, and they increase in girth over time.
  • By strict definition, pines and oaks are trees, because they possess wood, and increase in girth. On the other hand, palms or banana plants would not be considered trees, because they lack wood and the ability to increase in girth.
  • The earliest tree-like plants lacked wood, and did not increase in girth over their lifetime.
What is the earliest known tree-like plant?
  • The earliest known tree-like plants are the Gilboa trees (Eospermatopteris), known from fossils dating back 385 million years ago (late Middle Devonian Period). 
    • This plant was from an ancient and strange fern-like group, called the cladoxylopsids
    • These plants attained heights of 25 feet, growing similar to a palm, which is incredible given the height of plants (~6 feet) during the early Middle Devonian. 
    • They had very complex anatomy for the time period, but did not possess wood like a pine or oak tree. In fact, the details of how they grew is still a mystery given the limited fossil record of these plants
    • A strange feature of these trees was that they did not possess leaves! They had a complex pattern of branching, which allowed stems to get smaller and smaller, but there is no evidence of leaf blades. They probably had green stem tips which did photosynthesis, and it was adequate for the time period.
Above: Fossil stump of one of the earliest trees on Earth, Eospermatopteris, at Gilboa, NY
  • Since then, tree-like forms have evolved several times in history. In fact, almost every plant group, including ferns, club-mosses, horsetails, and seed plants, have evolved tree-like forms. 
  • The first recognized true trees (strict definition), which produced wood and increased the girth of the trunk was Archaeopteris.
    • This plant is from an extinct group called the progymnosperms
    • They had a woody trunk and side branches similar to a pine tree.
    • This plant also had leaves, that looked like fern fronds with spores. It was not a seed plant!
    • Nothing like this exists on Earth today, but they set the stage for plants that would eventually reach heights of 350-400 feet.
Above: comparison of Earth's earliest trees, Eospermatopteris and Archaeopteris

When did forests evolve?
  • Many of these earliest trees, like Eospermatopteris, would have been narrowly-constructed, with little shading of the ground. 
    • The Gilboa landscape was probably sparsely populated, similar to palms on an ocean shoreline.
  • Some groups, like the club-mosses, evolved into trees, and dominate in wetland environments, creating the first swamps.
  • The Archaeopteris trees created the first forests, with large leaves that shaded the ground.
    • Ferns survived in under-story of these forests, evolving large leaves and adapting to shady conditions. 
  • Early seed plants also evolved in the under-story of forests and swamps, and became taller later in geologic time. 
  • Increased diversity of plant life means that photosynthesis on Earth was happening at an amazing rate.
    • All of these plants were absorbing and removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 
    • This creates a global cooling event as well, as a short, intense glaciation that occurred at the very end of the Devonian (~360 million years ago).
  • The abundance of plants may have also effected the life in the oceans. 
    • The roots of these plants grew deeper and wider in the soil, loosing soil and minerals.
    • These nutrients were washed into rivers and oceans, along with large amounts of plant debris.
  • Both the global cooling, and the massive amounts of nutrients, caused the mass extinctions of animals in the tropical oceans (Algeo et al. 1995).
  • This event  known as the Late Devonian Extinction.
    • Half of known animals go extinct during this time; this event has little effect on plants.
Above: An early fish-like amphibian swimming next to a fallen trunk of Archaeopteris

What happens after this extinction event?

What were plants like before this time?