The fact that tree stumps can be fossilized in upright position has long been a fascinating topic of discussion. The occurrence of preserved, upright trees led to the recognition that some rock beds were deposited rapidly. Many fossil-tree localities were used to debate elements of catastrophism, the concept of rapid burial forming sedimentary rock layering. Standing tree trunks and their fossil roots also were used in debates on the origin of coal. Coal beds were once thought to represent transported organic material washed into layers by flooding. The occurrence of standing, rooted trees with the same roots (Stigmaria) that occur in underclays beneath coal beds helped to show scientists that coal was formed from peat and from in-place, rooted plants.

Illustrations of Carboniferous fossil standing tree stumps from historical reports. (A.) Sketch of a standing tree in a surface mine in France (from Brogniart, 1837). (B.) Drawing of a preserved lycopod stump with Stigmaria roots from Joggins, Nova Scotia (from Dawson, 1854). (C.) Illustration of standing tree and other vegetation at Joggins (from Lyell and Dawson, 1853).

In Europe, standing, in-place trees were encountered in many historic coal mines. Wood (1830) and Brogniart (1821) illustrated large erect fossil trees preserved above Carboniferous coal seams in Europe. Numerous reports from Europe (see Historic References) followed as standing trees and whole forests were encountered during surface mining of Carboniferous coal seams.

The first famous North American example of standing trees was in Nova Scotia, where Browne (1848) observed many standing fossiltrees at different levels in the cliffs of Joggins. These were documented in more detail by Dawson (1854, 1859) and Lyell (Lyell and Dawson, 1853; Lyell, 1854). In one of these tree trunks, Denderpreton, an early terrestrial vertebrate, was found. This is the only spot in the world in which vertebrates have been found in fossil tree stumps, and special conditions were needed for that preservation. The standing forests at Joggins also helped to show that coal deposition was cyclic with the development of rooted vegetation, burial and flooding by rivers and lakes, and then exposure and more rooted vegetation, followed by more flooding, etc.

In Kentucky, the first report of standing tree stumps was made by Owen (1857), who reported standing stumps 50 feet above the No. 12 coal bed in the Illinois Basin, which could be the Baker (W. Ky. No. 13) coal horizon or above. Fossil tree stumps have been reported from Baker coal mines in Kentucky. There does not appear to have been any further reporting of fossil tree stumps until the mid-1900s as mining became more widespread.

Historical photographs of standing fossil tree stumps from Kentucky. (A) An 8-foot tall stump in soft shale beneath the Hazard coal in Harlan County (Easton, 1913, p. 582). (B.) Three-foot-tall standing stump, reported as Sigillaria, from the Fordson Mine in Harlan County (McFarlan, 1943, Fig. 4). (C.) Three- to four-foot-tall stump between the Lower Whitesburg and Upper Whitesburg coal beds in Harlan County (Huddle and Englund, 1963, Fig 11).


See Historical Fossil Tree Stump References

See Photographs of Standing Fossil Tree Trunks


Last Modified on 2023-01-05
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