Here’s something that’ll stump your chainsaw: wood from petrified forests! The mineralized branch you hold today just might have been nibbled on by a dinosaur in some long-ago Jurassic brunch. These beautifully colored remnants of long-vanished landscapes are important links to the world as it was many millions of years ago.
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona, USA
Perhaps the most famous of the world’s petrified forests can be found in the Petrified Forest National Park, located in northeastern Arizona state. The park features a number of distinct concentrations of petrified wood which have been given names such as the Black Forest, the Crystal Forest, the Rainbow Forest and so on.
(images via: Park Vision)
Most of the trees in the park are Araucaria-like conifers that grew about 225 million years ago in the Triassic Period, an era in which the first dinosaurs were emerging and the planet’s land masses were clumped together in the supercontinent of Pangaea.
The area now encompassed by Petrified Forest National Park was occupied by various Native American tribes in pre-Columbian times. Around the year 900 AD, an eight-room pueblo was built from petrified wood cemented with clay mortar – a log cabin that was fireproof, to say the least! Called the Agate House and situated in the Rainbow Forest, the pueblo was partially reconstructed in the mid-1930s as a make-work project during the Great Depression.
One of the most striking features of Arizona’s Petrified Forest is the Agate Bridge, a 110-foot (34 meter) long petrified tree trunk that spans an arroyo dug out gradually over many centuries. In 1911, concern about safety issues and the propensity of park visitors to sit on or walk across the log compelled authorities to set up masonry pillars to support the log. Six years later, the pillars were replaced with a more aesthetically pleasing span of concrete.
Here’s a video showcasing the best sights of Petrified Forest National Park:
Ginkgo Petrified Forest, Washington, USA
A lush forest of Gingko, Sequoia and up to 20 other tree species flourished 15 million years ago in central Washington state. Many of these trees found their way to the bottom of Lake Vantage, which was buried by a series of volcanic eruptions. The ash and lava protected the dead trees from decomposition by insects and bacteria while water percolating down through the cooled lava brought minerals and chemical salts that gradually replaced the organic matter, petrifying the wood.
Catastrophic floods at the end of the last ice age stripped away millions of tons of topsoil, exposing the petrified forest where it fell. The remains of this ancient ecosystem is now preserved at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. The park has had ongoing problems with theft and to prevent it, some of the more outstanding specimens of petrified wood have been “caged” in concrete and steel mesh enclosures.
Petrified Forest of Lesbos, Greece
The Greek island of Lesbos (or Lesvos) is home to the Lesvos Petrified Forest, perhaps the largest such accumulation of petrified wood in Europe. Dating from 15 to 20 million years of age, the trees were preserved and fossilized by a series of volcanic eruptions that buried entire swathes of forest in thick blankets of ash. In 1995 the Natural History Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest was founded to showcase and study this unique record of the past, as well as protect it from damaging exploitation.
(images via: Lachlan Hunter)
The Lesvos Petrified Forest contains the largest plant fossils ever found anywhere in the world, a prime example being the massive tree trunk above that measures an astounding 28 feet (8.58 meters) in circumference and stands 23 feet (7 meters) high, though it originally stood much, much taller. The longest fallen tree trunk yet found in the Lesvos Petrified Forest measures 72 feet (22 meters) in length. Many of the upright trees bear a striking similarity to the ionic marble columns used by architects of Classical Greece… perhaps the likeness is no coincidence?
Mississippi Petrified Forest, USA
Around 35 million years near what is today the town of Flora, Mississippi, a raging river in flood created a mighty logjam of ancient Fir and Maple trees swept from a thousand-year-old primeval forest. Shortly after this event, the trees were buried in mineral-rich Mississippi mud and the process of petrification began. Today the rock-like trunks and branches of trees that once stood 100 feet (30.5 meters) tall once again see the light of day after having been exposed by erosion. One of the most outstanding examples of petrified wood at this location is “The Frog”, a battered portion of a once-mighty tree trunk that is estimated to weight 14,940 pounds or 6,776 kg.
(image via: Fossils Rocks Minerals)
Since 1976, petrified wood from the Mississippi Petrified Forest has served as the state’s official stone. The Mississippi Petrified Forest was registered as a National Natural Landmark in 1966. It is the only officially designated petrified forest in the eastern United States, though petrified wood has been found in other eastern and northeastern states.
Blue Forest of Eden Valley, Wyoming, USA
The petrified Blue Forest in Eden Valley, Wyoming, was formed from fallen trees that lived about 50 million years ago in a swampy area. When the trees died and fell into the swamp, they were rapidly covered with algae – this was a good thing. The algae formed casts that preserved the original bark surfaces of the trees and kept them from decaying. The wood shrunk and eventually it, the algae casts and the spaces between them were filled in by minerals, often in exquisite, crystalline form.
(image via: Sticks In Stones)
Blue agate is one of the beautiful minerals displayed by petrified trees from the Blue Forest, and it’s even more appealing when complemented by white quartz crystals and golden Calcite inclusions as seen in the specimen above.
Monumento Natural Bosque Petrificado, Argentina
About 140 million years ago, the Andes had yet to rise and what are today the arid steppes of Argentine Patagonia were moist and misty, shaded by old growth forests of gigantic Araucatis Mirabilis trees reaching up to 330 feet into the sky.
(image via: Bikes On Tour)
This idyllic scenario was not to last – the Andes were born in a burst of volcanic eruptions that drowned the majestic forests in successive waves of ash and lava. Erosion has worked to remove the layers of volcanic rock, revealing Monumento Natural Bosque Petrificado, one of the most spectacular petrified forests in South America.
(images via: Stones & Bones)
The fineness of the volcanic ash often served to cushion the more fragile parts of the trees against the heat and violence of the volcanic eruptions, resulting in the astonishingly detailed petrified pine cones shown above.
Yellow Cat Flat, Utah, USA
The western United States is best known archaeology-wise as a hotbed of dinosaur fossils but scattered among the bones are copious remains of the trees dinosaurs roamed among, nibbled upon and trampled underfoot. Some of the most noteworthy specimens of petrified wood come from Yellow Cat Flat, just north of Moab, Utah. Much of the petrified wood found here has eroded out from the Morrison Formation; rocks laid down around 150 million years ago in the Jurassic period.
(image via: Jay Bates)
Yellow Cat petrified wood is famous for its rich red color and orange to yellow highlights that result from the presence of iron and other metal compounds. Known as Carnelian, this deep reddish petrified wood has been worked into jewelry and arrowheads for many centuries. Visitors to the area should be advised that Yellow Cat Flat and the surrounding area is extremely desolate and dry (the ground water is contaminated with uranium and arsenic). There’s no food, bathrooms, accommodation or cell phone service… much like it was back in the Jurassic.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
The badlands of western North Dakota have a lot of good to show you, if you’re interested in petrified wood. Dating from the Paleocene Era (about 55 million years ago, after the dinosaurs went extinct), petrified wood can be found in scattered chunks, eroded logs and truncated trunks that still stand upright.
(image via: NDGS)
One of the best places in North Dakota to find an ancient frozen forest is in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, located off Interstate 94 near Medora, about 130 miles west of Bismarck, ND. The petrified trees belong to many species but the largest stumps (up to 12 feet or 3.65m in diameter) belong to the genus Metasequoia – the Dawn Redwood. Those who happen to be in Bismarck can check out a 120-foot (36.5 meter) long, 6-ft (1.82m) wide petrified Metasequoia log that’s been installed on the grounds of the state capital building.
Prehistoric Kauri Forest, New Zealand
Not all petrified wood is stone, and the process of petrification is anything but instant. Take New Zealand’s Prehistoric Kauri Forest as an example. Kauri trees – many of them huge, exceptionally wide specimens – grew in a swampy part of New Zealand’s North Island tens of thousands of years ago, and most of those designated as “Ancient Kauri” have been buried for up to 45,000 years. They’re partially petrified, and considered to be “the oldest workable wood in the world.”
(image via: TDPRI)
The largest Ancient Kauri log extracted from the ground measured 75 feet (23 meters) long, 37 feet (11.3 meters) wide and weighed in at a staggering 140 tons. Examination of the tree’s growth rings determined that it was 1,087 years old when it died. Part of the log was turned into a unique spiral staircase that can be seen at the showroom and retail outlet of Ancient Kauri Kingdom in Awanui, New Zealand.
Mummified Forest, Axel Heiberg Island, Canada
How do you make a Mummified Forest? Take one lush, old growth forest of Dawn Redwood trees and situate it 700 miles from the North Pole. Oh, you’ll also have to go back in time about 45 million years, to an era when global warming wasn’t a threat, but the norm.
(image via: Geological Survey of Canada)
Today on Canada’s otherwise desolate Axel Heiberg Island, a mummified forest grips the permafrost with gnarled roots. Not living but not petrified either, this exceptionally ancient wood can be sawed and burned if need be – and if you’re a paleobotanist thirsty for a cup of hot tea, one plays the hand they’re dealt.
Visiting a petrified forest (or watching the classic 1936 film of the same name) is a great way to interact with the past, and because these stone forests often contain so much petrified wood its easy to get up close and personal. As the great sage and eminent chicken roaster Kenny Rogers once said, “It’s the wood that makes it good”… even when the wood in question has turned to stone.