Barking Up the Right Tree Researchers Excavate Petrified Rainforest in German City

Researchers in the decidedly un-tropical German city of Chemnitz are uncovering spectacular remains of a petrified rainforest. The forest was preserved under a thick layer of ash after a volcanic eruption 290 million years ago.

Museum director Ronny Rössler shows off a piece of petrified wood found in Chemnitz.

Museum director Ronny Rössler shows off a piece of petrified wood found in Chemnitz.

An unusual excavation is underway in the eastern German city of Chemnitz, one which conjures up hard-to-believe images of the time when the area was covered by tropical rainforest.

A team led by researchers from Chemnitz's Museum for Natural History has been excavating a 290-million-year-old petrified prehistoric forest in the city's Hilbersdorf district since April. Now they have found the first preserved trees. "We have found four vertically standing and two prone gymnosperm trunks to date," said excavation leader Ralph Kretzschmar in a statement released by the museum Tuesday. Gymnosperms are a group of plants whose seeds are not enclosed within plant tissue, such as modern-day conifers or cycads.

The team has already found traces of further trunks, Kretzschmar said: "It would therefore be accurate to say that we are excavating a forest." The researchers are already able to make estimates regarding the density of the former rainforest, which was buried under a thick layer of ash following a volcanic eruption 290 million years ago. The volcanic ash helped to petrify the wood, with the lack of oxygen preserving the trees' cells.

One of the researchers' most interesting finds is a small branch which had broken off a tree. To the experts' surprise, the wood turned out to have an unsual structure, exhibiting a malignant growth like those which can be seen today on sick trees. Researchers believe the growth could be evidence of a fungus infection or a pathological reaction of the wood, which could have killed the tree before it was buried under the volcanic ash. "This could be a key find," said museum director Ronny Rössler.

The excavation site consists of a hole around 500 square meters (5,400 square feet) in size. In the long term, the museum hopes to turn the site into a tourist attraction, with the ultimate goal of getting Chemnitz accepted on to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.



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