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Enigmatic fossil plants with three-dimensional, arborescent-growth architecture from the earliest Carboniferous of New Brunswick, Canada

Robert A. Gastaldo, Patricia G. Gensel, Ian J. Glasspool, et al


• Extensively preserved, ∼350 Ma trunk with protracted crown morphology

• Early Carboniferous growth architecture presages modern fern lineages

• Densely arrayed compound leaves provide expansive photosynthetic surface and cover

• Fossils preserved as a consequence of earthquake-induced burial in ancient rift lake


The evolution of arborescence in Devonian plants, followed by their architectural radiation in the Carboniferous, is a transition fundamental to Earth-system processes and ecological development. However, this evolutionary transition in trees is based on preserved trunks, of which only a few known specimens possess crowns. We describe Mississippian-aged (Tournaisian) trees with a unique three-dimensional crown morphology from New Brunswick, Canada. The trees were preserved by earthquake-induced, catastrophic burial of lake-margin vegetation. The tree architecture consists of an unbranched, 16-cm-diameter trunk with compound leaves arranged in spirals of ∼13 and compressed into ∼14 cm of vertical trunk length. Compound leaves in the upper ∼0.75 m of the trunk measure >1.75 m in length and preserve alternately arranged secondary laterals beginning at 0.5 m from the trunk; the area below the trunk bears only persistent leaf bases. The principal specimen lacks either apical or basal sections, although an apex is preserved in another. Apically, the leaves become less relaxed toward horizontal and are borne straight at an acute angle at the crown. The compact leaf organization and leaf length created a crown volume of >20–30 m3. This growth strategy likely maximized light interception and reduced resource competition from groundcover. From their growth morphology, canopy size, and volume, we propose that these fossils represent the earliest evidence of arborescent subcanopy-tiering. Moreover, although systematically unresolved, this specimen shows that Early Carboniferous vegetation was more complex than realized, signaling that it was a time of experimental, possibly transitional and varied, growth architectures.