Scientists from Cambridge and Cardiff Universities have uncovered what is believed to be the world’s earliest known fossilised forest along the high sandstone cliffs near Minehead.

The fossilised forest, dating back to the Devonian Period between 419 and 358 million years ago, has been identified as the oldest in Britain and the earliest known forest globally. The trees, primarily of the species Calamophyton, resemble palm trees and are considered a ‘prototype’ of modern trees. The largest of these ancient trees stood between two and four metres tall, contributing to a lush landscape in an era that significantly predates the age of dinosaurs.

Dr Berry recognised the tree trunks immediately based on 30 years of studying this type of tree worldwide and described the experience as unique, particularly given the proximity of the find to a Butlin’s holiday camp. The fossils include well-preserved plants, debris, tree logs, and traces of roots, providing a unique snapshot of ancient ecosystems.

“The significance of seeing these trees in their original positions for the first time cannot be overstated,” Dr Berry noted.

According to Dr Paul Kenrick, a plant fossil expert at the Natural History Museum, the clues about how these plants grew together provide valuable information about the dynamics of ancient ecosystems.

This newly discovered fossil forest predates the previous record holder in New York State by approximately four million years, showcasing the remarkable age of the find. The fossils were identified within the Hangman Sandstone Formation along the Devon and Somerset coasts, providing a glimpse into a world long before many recognisable geological features emerged.

Once a semi-arid plain, the identified area was not connected to present-day England but to parts of Germany and Belgium.

Professor Neil Davies from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences, the study’s first author, provided insights into the fossilised forest, describing it as “pretty weird” and unlike any contemporary forest. The absence of undergrowth and grass paints a picture of an ancient landscape distinctly different from what we observe today.

The densely-packed Calamophyton trees, standing between two and four meters tall, significantly impacted the ancient landscape. Prof Davies highlighted the unusual features of this forest, pointing to characteristics that set it apart from any modern counterpart. The discovery challenges preconceived notions about Earth’s early ecosystems, providing a glimpse into a unique and complex world.

Dr. Kenrick from the Natural History Museum observed that the trees were very different from any known today. To draw a comparison, he suggested that the most similar modern counterpart might be Dicksonia antarctica, a tree fern native to Australasia but popular in Britain as an ornamental plant. This link to a modern plant helps researchers understand the ancient trees in terms of their contemporary counterparts.