A discovery hundreds of feet below the surface of Southern Illinois has the scientific community excited about the potential to better study natural climate change from a time millions of years before man burned his first fossil fuel.

Encased in a seam of Springfield coal is a fossil forest, the size of which had never before been seen. The carbon snapshot runs anywhere from 250 to 800 feet deep and stretches for more than 100 miles from around Galatia to southeast Indiana.

The fossil forest is unique not only because of its size, about 100 times larger than the next largest find, but also because of how intact the woodlands are.

“There is absolutely a huge volume of this stuff,” said Scott Elrick, a geologist with the Illinois State Geological Survey.

More than 300 million years ago, Southern Illinois was located at the equator and had running through it a river called the Galatia Channel that was the size of the Mississippi. The river’s channel is still visible in this region’s coal.

More importantly, the trees and ferns that once lined the river’s banks and stretched across its floodplain are also visible, trapped in what was once thick peat deposited during prehistoric floods.

“There had been little or no transportation of the material, no homogenization by water moving the material around,” said William DiMichele, a paleobiologist and curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

“And from this we could ‘map’ this vegetation over a large area. … (Every) trip we take underground where we find plants in the roof rocks, we see unexpected patterns and come to appreciate subtle things about the wetland vegetation of that long ago world,” DiMichele said.

The discovery in Galatia joined other finds in Illinois to give scientists a better idea of the effects of changes caused by prehistoric climate change.

“We had a lot of these puzzle pieces in front of us and we had to put the pieces together,” Elrick said.

Elrick described the find as a Rosetta Stone and smoking gun.

DiMichele said the discovery would help unlock some of the mysteries of how the natural environment deals with changes.

Scientists can find answers about how vegetation reassembled, how many species were lost between cycles, how many new species are born and what goes extinct or disappears from dominance.

“We've never been able to get this kind of perspective over this kind of scale,” Elrick said.

Although researchers view this fossilized forest by looking up, Elrick said the forest would look like any other when viewed from above.

However, if people were transported back in time to view the forest from the ground they would find an alien environment.

Scale-barked trees resembling giant asparagus stalks with six-foot trunks grew to heights of about 120 feet. The spongy cores of those trees were fossilized, leaving near perfect examples of how they looked. Perfectly entombed stands of seed-ferns are also in abundance.

Elrick said cockroaches from that time would look familiar and be about the same size now as they were then, but other insects would be massive.

One millipede-like creature was up to six feet long and two feet wide.

“I would not want to see one in person,” Elrick said.

DiMichele said he finds something new every time he goes underground, and his discoveries do not stop at plants.

“I never cease to be amazed and always want to get more time down there looking at this stuff,” he said. “I have to say, also, that I have learned a lot about coal mining, and about the men and women involved in it on a day-to-day basis, and that has (given) me great respect for it and them, and an appreciation of the privilege it has been to get to work in these kinds of environments.”

On Twitter: @DW_Norris_SI

(5) comments

coal miner

I have taken this geologist UG before at a couple mines. He does very good work and has alot of good theories on how things happened to form the Illinois basin. They know about these fossils, its nothing new. Miners find this stuff everyday, these geologist only get a day or two here or there to try to develop their theories. I am with you Joe, until you work UG, you dont realize the vastness of the space and how it constantly changes. I too have found sharks teeth and jaws. They sometimes are like you said, and sometimes under go whats called pyrite replacement. Like the sea shells they turn to pyrite, the bad thing is they usually break or fall apart before you can get them out.

1849 nevermore
1849 nevermore

Awsome article and very informative. Great to know that Southern Illinois is actually making a contribution to humanity and not Chicago's lil unwanted stepchild.
Thank you very much for the Info.
Ruthie

OLD JOE
OLD JOE

MMike I understand the story. But I couldn't imagine any place having more fossils than we did.

Now talk about climate change. I saw on the history channel, just a few million years ago, southern Il. was on the equator. That explains a lot to me about global warming happening naturally. Our earth has been evolving forever. And Obama can't stop it!!

But I do believe Romney could lol.

OLD JOE
OLD JOE

Really now. Scientist just discovered there is fossils is coal mines. We have been finding fossils everyday of sharks teeth, sea shells, trees, fish, 1ft snails and other past life for years. And selling them to scientist. A shark's tooth in the jaw bone is worth $50. The Fossil of a lily pad called a miner dollar is worth a one dollar. I remember one man that collected and sold enough miner dollar fossil's to buy a new Cadillac. I remember one man found a round clear crystal, marble size, with water and a bug inside just like on the movie Jurassic park. I have donated several sharks teeth still in the jaw bone to local schools for show and tell.

One thing that struck me odd, is the sharks teeth wasn't a fossil. They was still 100% white with 100% enamel. The sharks teeth looks fresh, the jaw bone didn't.

I wonder when scientist will discover that cars run on rubber tires lol?

MMike
MMike

Yes Joe scientists, amateur fossil hunters and miners have long known that coal seams often contain fossils. The point of the article is that this particular fossil forest find is of a of a size "which had never before been seen."

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