World's Oldest Primeval Forest?
February 23, 2014 9:20 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone tell me where the world's oldest forest might be? I'm wondering what place on Earth may have escaped the glaciers, catastrophic flooding, giant meteor impacts, volcanos, etc. I'm not interested in the world's oldest trees, or even the forest that's been least disturbed by human activity. I looking for the longest unbroken chain of terrestrial life.
posted by bonobothegreat to Science & Nature (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I dunno if it is a forest but it looks like the oldest living plants are Jarupa oaks in California scrub land.
posted by bearwife at 9:35 AM on February 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

So you're looking for the region that has had the same ecological conditions for the longest?

A first step toward finding the answer will be to search around for paleoclimate maps. One example I found quickly, tho there are many more online - paleoclimate vegetation maps. That makes it look like there are two big regions that were "closed [dense] forest" during the last glacial maximum: very roughly, north-central South America, and Southeast Asia/Indonesia.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:36 AM on February 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

That makes it look like there are two big regions that were "closed [dense] forest" during the last glacial maximum: very roughly, north-central South America

Isn't that the same area that is recently discussed as having been covered in large-scale agriculture? It may have had the conditions for forest for a long time, without necessarily being continuously forested at every moment.

I would have guessed parts of western sub-saharan Africa, which some of the linked vegetation maps would support. But again you'd need to look at areas with extensive pre-colonial civilizations and agriculture, where forests may have returned quickly after being cleared.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:49 AM on February 23, 2014

Yeah, I'm after what LM and DF are talking about, with desertification and intensive agricultural distruption added to the filter list.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:56 AM on February 23, 2014

Definitely a tropical forest, since the areas in those latitudes are the most climatologically stable and can be counted on to always get a lot of rain due to the way the macroclimate of the Earth is set up. (You need a lot of water for a forest, if you don't have enough you get grassland or some other ecosystem.) Areas that are temperate or colder will experience periodic glaciation, which obviously will remove any forests. If you go back far enough then the land masses themselves move around, but the present configuration of the continents has been very roughly the same for the last 70 million years or so at least.

I'd probably go with the Amazon, at a guess. It's very large, and it benefits from a huge mountain range to its west that traps warm, wet air blowing in from the east. The Congo dried up quite a bit during the Pleistocene (glaciations lock up a lot of water even where they don't actually scrape trees off the ground) and much of it converted to grassland. Southeast Asia is naturally more fragmented and therefore less ecologically stable. The high levels of biodiversity in the Amazon compared to Central Africa also would indicate that it's probably older, since biodiversity takes time to accumulate. Southeast Asia has higher diversity in some areas, but that's at least partly because it's at the confluence of two ecoregions.

Wikipedia, for what it's worth, says that the Amazon is 55 million years old, which is pretty darn old. Can't find estimates for any other forests though without doing more research than I have time for right now.
posted by Scientist at 10:00 AM on February 23, 2014

The Great Barrier Reef began growing roughly 18-20 million years ago.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:10 AM on February 23, 2014

The "longest unbroken chain of terrestrial life" might be in hydrothermal vents, not forests.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:18 AM on February 23, 2014

Just a little more quick googling around - Wikipedia's article on the Amazon says it is at least 55 million years old, and has some coverage of human impacts beginning over 10,000 years ago. This (who knows how reliable) site puts the Indonesian rain forests at 70 million years old.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:26 AM on February 23, 2014

The "longest unbroken chain of terrestrial life" might be in hydrothermal vents, not forests.

Hydrothermal vents are not terrestrial.

To further clarify your question -- are you looking for a forest that has had the same species of life, or has just been suitable for some type of forest for the longest? As climates change, certain species naturally migrate. So they may be found in a nearby, but not in the same exact region. This would be a much more subtle level, of course, than the drastic climate change of nearby glaciation. If you're looking on the macro level (which I tend to think you are), then I'd agree that a tropical forest would have the highest chance of being oldest. But also keep in mind that as tectonic plates move, some continents have migrated and twisted -- for example, northeast US used to be a tropical forest.
posted by DoubleLune at 10:36 AM on February 23, 2014

looking for the longest unbroken chain of terrestrial life

It's not clear to me if you are just assuming this would be a forest.

If you just want a chain of life, deserts and other areas sometimes considered "barren" usually have some sort of living creatures and plants, even fairly large mammals.
posted by yohko at 11:34 AM on February 23, 2014

This find of a "living fossil" in Australia may be relevant here -- Wollemia nobilis is noted not only for isolation but for continuity, suggestive of some degree of long-term presence on the landscape. Estimates of its divergence with its closest living relatives range from 18 million to 100 million years - perhaps the surrounding forest ecosystem can be inferred via proxy for the same general period of time?

Australia experienced the ice ages as a series of droughts for the most part, but the time scale in question (and probably the one relevant to your query) is that of continental drift and plate tectonics moving forests all over the globe, sometimes into unsustainable latitudes.
posted by Rumple at 12:03 PM on February 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd say: go climb a tree. A really tall tree. Arboreal ecosystems in the tallest trees, be they in California redwood or Australian mountain ash, seem to date back to the time when they were so high up that they escaped the teeth of sauropods.

But all the other answers in this thread are good too - your question is easy to answer from a multitude of directions. Johnny's vents are probably the best literal answer.

Edit: Heck I guess the top of a three-hundred-foot-tall tree is aerial, not terrestrial.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 12:13 PM on February 23, 2014

But if you are really interested in the forest primeval, check out the Bialowieza Forest between Belarus and Poland.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 1:56 PM on February 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Primal forest to me says tree ferns which suggests you check out New Zealand's and Australia's forests.
posted by hydrobatidae at 2:04 PM on February 23, 2014

The groves of antarctic beech inn Australia's temperate rainforests are thought to date from when the continent was part of gondwana, which would be the oldest period mentioned here yet.
posted by smoke at 2:12 PM on February 23, 2014

Lots of great suggestions here and it's forced me to think about my question a bit.

Yes, I'm imagining a forest ecosystem that has remained reasonably static during at least the last few ice ages. Where erosion is limited to the action of small rivers and the run off of rain (hasn't been stripped down to bare rock by glaciers, or turned to desert sand or grassland).

I appreciate that there can't be any kind of exact reckoning on this.

posted by bonobothegreat at 6:33 PM on February 23, 2014

Well, there is a reason they filmed an awful lot of 'Walking with Dinosaurs' in New Zealand.

The tuatara, which looks like a lizard but is a separate species, older than dinosaurs, appears largely unchanged from 220 million years ago. See Tuatara

Most European amber is from trees in the Araucaria family, which was dominant around the age of the dinosaurs. The Wollemia nobilis mentioned above, appears to be the closest living relative, but only continues in a very tiny patch, as mentioned above. The Kauri in NZ, is still a dominant canopy tree. Oldest amber deposits in NZ of Kauri are only about 40 million years old though.
See more - Araucaria, past and present

There's obviously heaps of tree ferns etc, making for very 'primitive' looking forest.

Prior to the arrival of humans, the only native mammal to our islands were some tiny species of bats (obviously blown in at some point). So, we split off from the rest of the continents prior to mammals being established (or there was, and they went extinct). The Maori people introduced mice and dogs when they arrived around 1000 years ago.
The arrival of Europeans brought many, many more species, and little of our forest is 'pristine'.

No mammals, but birds went nuts.
Tragically many of our weirder species went extinct when humans came, eg Giant Eagles big enough to carry off small children, and their prey the Moa, many of which were like much larger ostriches.

Many of the species are from Gondwanaland, about 80 million years ago, I think all but about 18% of the current landmass was underwater at various points.
There have been several Gondwanaland species that probably went extinct, but then we were recolonised from Antartica (before it froze - and Australia, so... the species tend to be all the same group, even if it turns out they took a detour in coming back here (see the Weta, for example).

Heaps of our creatures are a bit odd and keep being described as 'primitive'.
Primitive frogs
Giant carnivorous snails

However, the oldest rocks in New Zealand, are only about 500 million years old, which isn't that much older than some of the 'living fossil' species, listed above.
So, if you're looking for the most disaster-proof spot, it's not exactly that, but, the whole island life-raft effect has been pretty interesting.
posted by Elysum at 8:00 PM on February 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also worth noting that NZ was one of the places in the world least affected by the impact that caused the K-Pg extinction event.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:59 PM on February 23, 2014

You might enjoy exploring the Unesco World Heritage natural properties list.

If you're not stuck on forests, stromatolites are some of the oldest forms of life on earth, and still exist today, however they grow poking out of shallow water.
posted by momus_window at 6:12 AM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might want to check out more on the Daintree Rain Forest in Australia.

" the Daintree rain forest has been around for 180 million years, ... Before there was an Australia, before there were flowering plants, or cassowaries to eat their fruit, this forest was already growing. Through a fluke of geology and climate it has persisted all the way into our era, along with a selection of giant ferns and other relic plants found in no other part of the world. "

I'd be dubious about that date, but it merits further investigation.
posted by Elysum at 5:19 AM on May 28, 2014

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