April 18, 2021

Intact Ancient Petrified Tree Found Near ‘Father of Botany’s’ Hometown

Ancient tree, Theophrastus
The tree offers a window into a time when the Earth's climate was a hothouse in the distant past.

On the Greek island of Lesbos, an enormous petrified tree was discovered by chance. Construction workers were about to asphalt a highway when they noticed a small branch in the petrified forest, a Unesco global geopark. Upon closer inspection, geologists excavated a 19.5 meter (63.9 foot) tree lying in a bed of its own ancient leaves. It could be 20 million years old.

Unlike other petrified trunks in the area, the singular tree was intact, with many branches and roots still in place, a breakthrough discovery. Looking at it from above, it resembles a giant skeletal arm.

Portuguese paleontologist Artur Abreu Sá told the Guardian the tree was unique in all the world. Since excavations in the area began in 1995, it’s the first time geologists have found such an intact specimen.

“We have a case of extraordinary fossilization in which a tree was preserved with its various parts intact. In the history of paleontology, worldwide, it’s unique,” said Abreu Sá. “That it was buried by sediments expelled during a destructive volcanic eruption and then found in situ makes it even more unusual.”

Millions of years ago, the Mediterranean island’s subtropical forests were smothered in lava due to a volcanic eruption. Then, volcanic ash covered the tree and preserved it, along with nearby animal bones and fruit tree leaves.

Clues Into What May Come Due to Climate Change

Professor Nikos Zouros of the Museum of Natural History of the Petrified Forest of Lesbos told Reuters that scientists will identity the plant and “reconstruct the ecosystem that existed during that period.” Then, the tree will become part of a planned “open-air museum.”

Professor Iain Stewart, who directs the Sustainable Earth Institute at the University of Plymouth, told the Guardian that the ancient tree offers a window into a time when the Earth’s climate was a hothouse. Perhaps, it will offer clues into what may come due to climate change today.

“It’s a world-class place to look at the type of environment that existed 20m years ago,” Steward said. “Finds like these are a window into a particular past, a greenhouse, hothouse world, that existed back then. They might be an indication of what is coming if we don’t get our act together in tackling the climate change emergency.”

Nearby, geologists have found 150 petrified trunks, offering a broad look into the ancient forest that once stood there.

The Father of Botany

Nearby, the ancient “Father of Botany,” Theophrastus (c. 371–287 BCE), grew up in Eresos. The philosopher’s original name was Tyrtamus, but his close colleague Aristotle changed it “because of the godlike manner of his speech (theos-phrazein).” 

Theophrastus’ extant works include two large treatises on botany, which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls “the first systematization of the botanical world and one of the most important contributions to botanical science during antiquity and the Middle Ages.”

Chronis Tzedakis, a professor of physical geography at University College London, believes that Theophrastus may have known about petrified trees in the area and could have taken Aristotle to see them.

Of the 550 species of plants that Theophrastus investigated, he was interested in the “wood of different trees and the effects of climate on it.”

Now, it appears the ancient tree so close to his childhood home may reveal the effects of climate 20m year ago.

See more in the video by Guardian News:

Today, Theophrastus is also known for his humorous character sketches in his work called Characters. In the sketches, he describes the bad behavior of personality types like The Authoritarian, The Social Climber, The Yokel, The Sycophant, and The Pinchpenny. Certainly, these personalities from Athens remain all-too-familiar in our modern world.

Recently, another edition was republished. (see below)

Featured image: Statue of Theophrastus via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.5) with screenshot via YouTube

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