Oldest Known Wood

Two newly described fossils suggest that wood is some 10 million years older than previous believed.

Jef Akst
Jef Akst

Jef (an unusual nickname for Jennifer) got her master’s degree from Indiana University in April 2009 studying the mating behavior of seahorses. After four years of diving off the Gulf...

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Aug 12, 2011

Transverse section of an Early Devonian (407 million years ago) plant with a small amount of woodIMAGE © SCIENCE/AAAS

Woody plants make up some today’s most impressive and diverse flora, but when and how they evolved is largely unknown. Now, two relatively small fossils provide new clues, and suggest that wood evolved at least 10 million years earlier than previously documented, according to a study published today (August 11) in Science. The fossils, a 407-million-year-old specimen from France and a 397-year-old specimen from Canada, have rings of cells that radiate outward—a defining characteristic of wood—and the walls of their cortexes are thick. Taken together with their surprisingly small size—stems measuring only about 12 centimeters in length—the fossils may help settle a debate about why wood evolved in the first place, suggesting that rather than providing mechanical support for plants as they grew larger, the woody structures served as...