(Blacksburg, Va., April 22, 1999) -- Consider the architecture of modern trees -- the woody strength that builds in rings to support greater and greater height and weight, the protective bark that shields the cells that conduct water and nutrients from the earth to the farthest leaves, and the collars of extra wood that surround the bases of each branch and the way internal layers of wood dovetail at branch junctions to prevent breakage. It must have taken millions of years to evolve such a successful structure.
If it did, it happened about 360 million years ago. Archaeopteris, an extinct tree that made up most of the forests across the earth in the Late Devonian period, had the same structure as modern trees, report three scientists in the April 22, 1999 issue of Nature ("Archaeopteris is the earliest known modern tree," by Brigitte Meyer-Berthaud, Stephen E. Scheckler, and Jobst Wendt.).
After decades of operating with a model of what the tree looked like based on imprints of the leaves in fossil rocks and bits of fossilized wood, last year Meyer-Berthaud of the Laboratoire de Paléobotanique Université Montpellier in France and Scheckler, professor of biology and geological sciences at Virginia Tech in the United States, were able to examine hundreds of pieces of Archaeopteris and study the evidence that the plant was the first modern tree. It happened like this.
Almost a decade ago, Wendt, a paleontologist with the Geologisch-Paläontologisches Institut in Tübingen, Germany, was studying marine deposits in the Morocco Sahara desert, where he has been mapping marine rock formations for many years. While looking for connecting formations at a depth that would be from the Devonian period, he found logs that had been buried in ancient marine sediment that would have been hundreds of miles off the ancient coastline but were now exposed by shifting desert sands.