May 14, 2007
TWO MILLION YEARS OLDER
Just imagine, millions of years before the dinosaurs, a river washed sediment into this limestone cave. Coal miners are usually the first to find clues of our ancient history, but a class from the University of Illinois Chicago came upon well-preserved life from 310 million years ago - plant spores, scorpion parts and needles from a conifer that may be the oldest ever found on the continent.
The material is in pristine shape, having been protected from decomposing effects of oxygen 60 feet below the surface before it was unearthed. Much of Southern Illinois was a kind of basin covered by low seas and swampland filled with sediments on which forests grew. This formed an organic stew that turned into peat, then coal.
In Danville, Illinois scientists found a 300-million-year-old fossilized rain forest in a mine which was preserved in intricate detail, including fern fronds and ancient trees with diamond-patterned bark. They believe it to be one of the earth's first rain forest.
In a quarry closer to Chicago UIC Professor Roy Plotnick found a cave that produced what is thought to be the earliest predecessor to the modern pine in North America- a specimen now in the Field Museum's collection. The oldest conifers on record are at least 2 million years younger.