Oldest pine trees existed 140 million years ago

Pine trees are such a frequent sight in the forests of the Northern Hemisphere, but until recently, few people knew just how long they’ve been around. But that’s just changed, according to the findings of a new study. Researchers from the United Kingdom have discovered the oldest pine tree fossils in history, and they happen to be about 140 million years old or more.

The pine tree fossils were found in a rock quarry in Nova Scotia, Canada, and date back to the Cretaceous period, a time when dinosaurs were still rulers of the animal kingdom. According to a report from Science magazine, tiny divots were found on one charred twig, measuring only about half a centimeter in diameter. This was how the researchers discovered that the fossils are about 11 million years older than the erstwhile oldest pine fossil ever discovered.

Since the pine fossils were preserved as charcoal, this suggests that they were charred from a wildfire. This, according to a press release from the Royal Holloway, University of London, also means pines “co-evolved with fire at a time when oxygen levels in the atmosphere were much higher, and forests were especially flammable.” The revelation that fires were so commonplace at that time does additionally hint that the wildfires helped in the pine tree’s evolution over time.

“Pines are well adapted to fire today,” explained researcher Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang from Royal Holloway. “The fossils show that wildfires raged through the earliest pine forests and probably shaped the evolution of this important tree.”

These days, pine trees store deadwood that is rich in resin and highly flammable, which makes them prime victims for present-day wildfires, Falcon-Lang added. But on the flip side of things, they produce a significant number of cones that are only able to germinate after a fire, which “ensures a new cohort of trees is seeded after the fire has passed by.”

Falcon-Lang’s research was published this week in the journal Geological Society of America.