Scientists have discovered a tropical forest encased in ash when a volcano erupted about 300 million years ago. The finding, dubbed the "Permian Pompeii" after the Roman city that was buried in ash, preserved the forest in a time capsule:
Palaeoecologists can usually only infer the richness of an ancient forest ecosystem by piecing together fossils of plant fragments of varying ages. Only when broad areas are preserved in situ in a geological instant can researchers get a true picture of the composition and ecology of the forest, says Hermann Pfefferkorn, a palaeoecologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Although floods can cover wide swathes of landscape with sediment in one fell swoop, they often bring in organisms from other areas and wash local inhabitants away. The most reliable preservation, Pfefferkorn suggests, comes from a smothering layer of volcanic ash.
Pfefferkorn and his colleagues have unearthed one such time capsule from 298-million-year-old rocks in northern China — a 'forest Pompeii' where the weight of falling ash ripped leaves from twigs, toppled trees and then buried the lot. The consistent thickness of ash deposits in the region, as well as the size of individual ash particles, suggest that the volcanic blast occurred more than 100 kilometres away.