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Fossil hunters reap world's oldest tree

June 03, 2007|Michael Hill | Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. — The tree stood tall and spindly in the hot sun some 380 million years ago when something toppled it, maybe a storm or an earthquake.

It fell into water and dammed up a muddy delta. The mud and sand on top hardened into sedimentary rock, hiding the fossilized tree for eons -- until Frank Mannolini came by with a hammer and chisel.

Over the last three years, Mannolini and his fellow New York State Museum fossil hunter Linda VanAller Hernick painstakingly uncovered and curated the tree crown and a separate trunk specimen found in a remote rock quarry in upstate New York.

Their efforts were noted in an article in the April 19 issue of the weekly journal Nature, which described their finds as significant examples of the oldest known tree: Wattieza. The chipped-away pieces are kept in the museum's storerooms. A portion of a 28-foot trunk impression, put back together like a jigsaw puzzle, lies on a floor.

"It took a lot of glue to put it back together," Mannolini said, looking over his work. "A lot of patience."

The trees were found about half an hour southwest of Albany, in an area that has been on the paleontological map since 1870, when workers at a separate quarry stumbled upon a group of fossilized stumps that looked like big fat stone pears. The finds were dubbed the "Gilboa stumps" after the little town nearby.

The stumps had been cited as evidence of the world's oldest forest, but they provided only partial information about the ancient trees. It was like finding just a dinosaur leg. Scientists could make only educated guesses about what the rest of the tree looked like until Hernick and Mannolini uncovered the specimens.

It was especially meaningful work for both of them.

Hernick, the museum's paleontology collection manager, had been fascinated by the Gilboa stumps since seeing them on display as a girl.

Mannolini's connection to the site is stranger and sadder. His younger sister, Sharon Mannolini, was the museum's paleontology collection manager when she was killed four years ago in a car accident at age 35.

Brother and sister were fascinated by geology growing up. He would even bring his sister rocks he found when he went exploring in the woods.

He found out after her death that she had kept them her whole life.

Mannolini landed a temporary job at the state museum and eventually earned the same position his sister held. He now has his sister's old desk, and Sharon's picture stares out at him when he works there.

When he went to the quarry in 2004, he decided to start digging where his sister had dug.

That's when he found a fossil of a tree's crown. The tree had branches fanning out at the top, making it look like a long-handled brush. Its profile slightly resembles a palm tree, but Wattieza had no leaves. It reproduced through spores. "It's a look at the way the first trees were constructed," Hernick said.

The 28-foot-long section of a trunk was found in the summer of 2005. Scientific analyses on the finds were performed by state paleontologist Ed Landing, William Stein of Binghamton University in New York and Christopher Berry of Cardiff University in Wales. They shared credit with the pair for the article in Nature, which said the specimens provided new insight into Earth's earliest trees and forests.

Wattieza grew probably as high as 30 feet in a world yet to see flowers, reptiles or dinosaurs. But the broken branches probably helped provide a hospitable habitat for centipede-like arthropods.

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