The pine tree is a highly-familiar feature of Northern Hemisphere forests today. Recently, scientists have found that they date back at least 140 million years to the Cretaceous period, a time when dinosaurs still roamed the planet.

Researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London found the oldest pine tree fossils as uniquely preserved as charcoal produced by wildfires. The discovery was made at a rock quarry in Nova Scotia, Canada.

The specimens suggest that the tree survived at a time when the atmosphere had much higher oxygen levels and forests were particularly flammable.

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

According to the scientist, pines today contain flammable deadwood on the tree, which makes them easily burn. However, they also produce massive amounts of cones that will germinate only after a fire, making sure that new trees are seeded afterward.

The discovered charred twig, reported Science magazine, features small divots where pine needle shoots formerly sprang forth. The team used acid to dissolve a rock from the quarry to reveal the fossil, which is a mere half-centimeter in diameter.

Dr. Falcon-Lang told BBC News that it was only when he processed the specimens in acid that the beautiful fossils came out. This summer, he plans to return to the rock quarry to recover more samples, with hopes of finding flowering plant fossils, too, that evolved around the same time as the prehistoric pines.

Although only a couple of millimeters long, the fossils likely hailed from trees that resemble the Scot Pine now covering huge portions of Scotland.

This find lived up to 11 million years earlier than the oldest previously-found pine fossil, vouching for the existence of pine trees much earlier than thought.

The findings were discussed in the journal Geology.

Photo: Chris Parfitt | Flickr

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