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Experts Digging On This Historic Island Unearthed A Breathtaking 17-Million-Year-Old Secret

On the Mediterranean island Lesbos, a team of researchers slave away beneath the winter sun. Scanning a stretch of highway in the picturesque northwest, an eagle-eyed observer has spotted something out of the ordinary. And now the group are determined to dig deeper, slowly uncovering a colossal secret that’s been buried for millions of years.

A land dripping in myth and legend, Lesbos is just the sort of place where you might expect to encounter an ancient mystery. But unlike the Greek heroes of old, the people unraveling this riddle are scientists: geologists studying what the island looked like in prehistoric times. So what exactly have they found in this unlikely location?

Millions of years ago, Lesbos was a very different place, populated by strange creatures and subtropical vegetation. But even these days, some relics of that distant time remain. And it was while investigating one of the island’s historical sites that researchers stumbled upon an awe-inspiring reminder of the past.

Was it the remains of some giant animal that once stalked this far-flung corner of the Aegean Sea? Or something altogether more mysterious, left over from a time when humans had yet to evolve from apes? For several weeks the team painstakingly excavated the discovery, in the process revealing something that hadn’t been seen on the island before.

The story began with the work of Nikolas Zouros, a University of the Aegean professor who specializes in geology. Since 1995 he’s been heading a research team based on Lesbos, dedicated to studying the unique landscape of this fascinating island. But even he couldn’t have predicted what they’d ultimately find.

To people like Zouros, research such as this is essential if we want to comprehend the world around us – and where it might be headed. Speaking to British newspaper The Guardian in February 2021, he said, “The more we discover the more we understand past ecosystems.” But why Lesbos?

Well, as it turns out, this 630-square-mile island close to the coast of Turkey’s the perfect place to study the ancient past. Formed by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, it boasts a diverse range of habitats and landscapes, some of which have escaped modern development relatively unscathed. And it was in the midst of just such an area that Zouros and his team made their incredible discovery.

In 2013 Zouros’ group began focusing on a specific area of Lesbos, conducting research into its geological history. Together, the 35 experts set about investigating a stretch of road in the northwest of the island. Beginning in the town of Kalloni, it travels east for around 30 miles before reaching Sigri, a sleepy fishing settlement on the coast.

In the end, it would take eight years before Zouros’ work would yield any truly astonishing results. But that doesn’t mean the researchers were resting on their laurels. On the contrary, as many as 15 locations of interest, dubbed “significant fossil sites” by The Guardian, were identified during the long project.

But it wasn’t until November 2020 that researchers stumbled upon their one-of-a-kind find – almost completely by chance. According to Zouros, workers were preparing to lay asphalt on a stretch of road, which would have put a halt to excavations there for good. Before they could, though, a team member spotted something sticking out of the earth.

“The road work stopped, we started excavating and quite quickly realized we had chanced on an incredible find,” Zouros told The Guardian. Later, another expert would go on to add that the discovery’s unique in the world of paleontology – the investigation into fossilized life. So what exactly is this colossal relic from another age?

Could the team have uncovered dinosaur bones, perhaps, preserved beneath the surface for millions of years? Or something even stranger? After all, Lesbos, like much of Greece, is a place steeped in legend as much as history. Might some of its myths be a little more than the fiction many presume them to be?

Though there are no legends of gigantic beasts linked directly to the island itself, the stories of Ancient Greece are stocked with them. Take The Iliad, for example, in which Lesbos is described as the homeland of beautiful women. And according to Homer’s epic, a vast array of monsters stalked Greece at the time of the Trojan War.

Among these are creatures familiar to modern readers, such as centaurs and winged horses, as well as some more unusual additions. The Chimaira, it seems, combined the torso of a lion with the head of a goat and the tail of a snake, while the Gorgo apparently boasted tusks like a pig and multiple wings.

Of course, it’s unlikely that Zourous and his team discovered any fossilized monsters alongside a highway in modern Lesbos. But such stories are never far from the imagination when exploring sites as rich in history and mythology as this Aegean island. And if the investigators didn’t find a centaur or a Gorgo, then what did they find?

Interestingly, there’s no need to look to the pages of The Iliad to find accounts of monstrous beasts in the region. In fact, in the millions of years of its existence, Lesbos has played host to a number of real-life monsters – and it has the fossil record to prove it.

In recent times, scientists have found the bones of mastodons on the island – huge, elephant-like creatures that grew up to 10 feet in height. On occasion, femurs belonging to these beasts have been discovered measuring more than 45 inches in length. One of these, then, would surely be enough to convince most casual observers that a monster had been found?

Or perhaps Zouros and his team stumbled upon the fossilized remains of a giant tortoise, the likes of which inhabited Lesbos thousands of years ago? Said to have been as large as an automobile, these beasts once shared the landscape with all manner of strange, prehistoric creatures. But none of them were quite as incredible as the giant life-form that the researchers retrieved during their excavations.

On that November day when the find was first revealed, though, it mightn’t have seemed like much at first. After all, the technician had simply spotted a small, fossilized object poking out of the ground. The team then spent weeks painstakingly excavating the site – and eventually the incredible truth was revealed.

In a find that experts have called unprecedented, the team quickly realized that the fossilized branch they’d first spotted was connected to a giant tree, some 63 feet in length. But the vast size of this ancient life form wasn’t the only extraordinary thing about it. According to reports, the fossil was also remarkably unscathed, with even its leaves and roots still visible.

“This is a unique situation worldwide in the history of paleobotany,” Zouros told U.K. newspaper The Independent in February 2021. According to experts, the organism could be as many as 20 million years old. This is, though, far from the first time that the team have discovered ancient greenery on Lesbos.

In fact, Zouros’ work is conducted on behalf of the Museum of Natural History of the Petrified Forest of Lesbos. And that name should give you a clue as to the sort of terrain he’s used to exploring. Since the 1990s, the geologist’s been researching a peninsula on the western side of the island where fossilized trees are commonly found.

Known as the petrified forest of Lesbos, this strange landscape was created after a nearby volcano erupted some 20 million years ago, during the Miocene period. As a result, a large part of the island was carpeted in lava and ash, preserving the trees that were growing in the region.

Today, this petrified forest covers some 35,000 acres and is a popular location for scientists wanting to learn more about the ecology of the past. And ever since the 1990s Zouros and his team have been studying this fascinating landscape. But this is the first time that such a complete fossilized tree’s been discovered.

“It’s the only one found in the excavation found with the branches, the root system, and was found on a layer full of leaves – we have all the organs of the tree in the regional system,” Zouros told CNN in February 2021. “This is unique, until now – we have been excavating for 25 years and have never found such a tree.”

Amazingly, though, this wasn’t even the only remarkable discovery that Zouros and his team made during their recent excavations. According to reports, just weeks after the initial find the researchers unearthed a large collection of petrified logs. Amounting to some 150 in number, they were arranged in a pile and located close to the intact fossilized tree.

This find, Zouros says, makes the site even more fascinating than they’d first suspected. “To discover [the tree] so complete and in such excellent condition is a first,” he told The Guardian. “To then discover a treasure trove of so many petrified trunks in a single pit was, well, unbelievable.”

Also speaking to The Guardian, Artur Abreu Sá, a Portuguese scientist, agreed. He said, “We have a case of extraordinary fossilization in which a tree was preserved with its various parts intact. In the history of paleontology, worldwide, it’s unique. That it was buried by sediments expelled during a destructive volcanic eruption, and then found in situ, makes it even more unusual.”

So exactly what type of organism is this ancient specimen? According to CNN, Lesbos’ petrified forest was once populated by fruit trees, palms, oaks, cinnamons, pines and sequoias. But at the moment, experts are yet to determine the precise identity of this 20 million-year-old fossil. Unusually, though, they should be able to find out.

“When we find plant fossil remains, normally it is not easy to be able to attribute the remains of roots, trunks, branches, leaves, or even fruits to the tree to which they belonged,” Zouros told The Independent. In order to get to the bottom of the mystery, the team will continue to study the artifact, in the hope of eventually identifying its exact nature.

For the time being, though, the tree’s been moved to a new position some 100 feet from its original location. There, members of the public can see it in all its glory, protected by a shelter designed to shield it from the elements. In time, though, Zouros hopes that the fossil will come to be the centerpiece of a museum dedicated to Lesbos’ unique geology.

In fact, experts hope that studying trees such as this one will give them valuable insights into a rapidly changing world. As climate change continues to wreak havoc across the globe, the value of comprehending our planet’s fragile ecosystems is greater than ever before. And according to the Sustainable Earth Institute’s Iain Stewart, Lesbos’ petrified forest’s a great place to start.

“It’s a world-class place to look at the type of environment that existed 20 million years ago,” Stewart told The Guardian. “Finds like these are a window into a particular past, a greenhouse, hothouse world, that existed back then. They might be an indication of what is coming if we don’t get our act together in tackling the climate change emergency.”

Though there are a number of petrified forests around the world, the one located on Lesbos is unique – making it invaluable to scientific research. Speaking to CNN, University College London’s Chronis Tzedakis explained, “[It] is exceptional because several trees are found in their original position, with their root systems intact. This provides a rare glimpse of a Miocene forest, in terms of its size and density.”

Researchers have already been able to determine that some 50 percent of the flora species that once existed on Lesbos are now extinct. Speaking to CNN, Zouros explained, “They could not survive climate change. This is important information we can use to explain to visitors that climate change has serious consequences to the species living here, to the modern ecosystems.”

The hope, then, is that finds such as this giant, fossilized tree will help to create a narrative that educates us about climate change – before it’s too late. And it won’t be the first time that Lesbos’ petrified forest’s taken on the role of teacher. According to Tzedakis, it may have also helped to inspire the scientific revelations of Aristotle.

According to historical records, the Greek philosopher lived on Lesbos for a couple of years after being invited there by one of his students, Theophrastus. Speaking to The Guardian, Tzedakis said, “I often like to think that Aristotle, who established the foundation of scientific inquiry while on Lesbos, must have seen the petrified trees.”

If that was the case, might the fossils – and their similarities to the trees still living on Lesbos – have influenced Aristotle’s thoughts surrounding species? Though we may never know the truth, Tzedakis likes to think that there’s a connection. He added, “Having grown up in nearby Eressos, Theophrastus… would have surely known about [the forest] and have taken the great man to see it.”

Have the fossilized trees of Lesbos, then, been inspiring thinkers for centuries? If that is the case, they’re not the only ones to have done so. Thousands of miles away in West Wales, another petrified forest’s been generating speculation since at least the 13th century. Initially, chroniclers believed that the mysterious stumps were left behind when a stricken kingdom sank beneath the water.

Now, though, scientists are looking to Wales’ petrified forest to learn more about climate change – much like Zouros and his team. And in both Lesbos and the U.K., the message is clear: our planet’s changing fast. Will the secrets of these ancient trees help us to navigate the uncertain future that’s ahead of us?

Hopefully, the answer is yes. And an unassuming fossil can not only provide the key to unlocking past mysteries, but it can also potentially give us clues about where we’re heading. Not all the news is good, mind you. When a team of researchers used lasers to analyze an ancient shell, their discovery sent shockwaves throughout the scientific community.

The experts behind the study were from Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Utrecht University, and they published their results in February 2020 in the American Geophysical Union (AGU) journal. Their findings not only reveal a mind-blowing secret about our planet, but they may also help to provide new information about the Moon. What’s more, these discoveries have all been made through close analysis of a long-extinct relative of the modern-day clam.

The mollusk that the team studied dates back to around 70 million years ago, shortly before the dinosaurs were wiped out. It’s part of the Torreites sanchezi species, which belongs to a now-defunct group called rudist clams. These organisms are notable because they built up their shells in daily growth layers – a trait that proved particularly useful for the research team.

According to the AGU, T. sanchezi mollusks resembled “tall pint glasses with lids shaped like bear claw pastries.” They consisted of a pair of shells – or “valves.” And these were connected by a hinge which was akin to an asymmetrical clam. Apparently, they were most commonly found in water warmer than our oceans today and grew in thick reefs.

The mollusk analyzed in this study originated from a shallow seabed, where it lived for more than nine years. The once-tropical area is now totally dry and sits within the mountains of modern-day Oman. But back then, it was home to clusters of the mollusks – until they disappeared in the same extinction event that’s thought to have eradicated the land-based dinosaurs.

The study’s lead author and analytical geochemist at Vrije Universiteit Brussel Niels de Winter told AGU in March 2020, “Rudists are quite special bivalves. There’s nothing like it living today. In the late Cretaceous especially, worldwide most of the reef builders are these bivalves. So, they really took on the ecosystem-building role that the corals have nowadays.” Seventy million years later, that same clam has become an ancient recording device – chronicling Earth’s secrets within its layers.

Through carefully conducted experiments, de Winter and his team were able to extract mind-blowing revelations from this unassuming shell. Their findings have helped to confirm long-held theories surrounding ancient Earth and beyond. Yes, the study has even helped experts understand more about our Moon and the role it has played in the evolution of our planet.

While the shell has undoubtedly unlocked doors to new findings, scientists already know quite a lot about what life was like at the time. Dinosaurs still roamed the planet, for instance, as the end of the late Cretaceous period approached. Geologically speaking, the Earth was in the Maastrichtian stage of the Mesozoic era, which covers from 72.1 to 66 million years ago.

Over the 79 million years that constituted the Cretaceous period, the planet underwent substantial changes. At its beginning, the planet’s landmasses were arranged in two supercontinents – Laurasia in the north and the huge southern island of Gondwana. But both had already begun rifting, and by the end of this monumental age, the continents as we know them today were starting to take shape.

North America continued to drift away from what is now Europe in a shift that had begun during the earlier Jurassic period. And this, of course, further widened the span of the Atlantic Ocean. India was still planted next to Madagascar, but it was now adrift and beginning to move northward. Australia, on the other hand, was still connected to Antarctica – moving away from Africa and beyond the South Pole.

The climate cooled considerably over the Cretaceous period, but it was still much warmer than today. Instead of ice sheets, forests covered the poles and it allowed dinosaurs to wander Antarctica. However, as the planet cooled, these and other non-equatorial forests became more temperate. This effect was experienced across the Earth – bringing seasonal weather to the northern and southern hemispheres.

The aforementioned climatic changes ultimately gave way to the emergence of grass, deciduous forests and flowering plants. The latter proved particularly important, with their rapid growth providing a food source for many animals. The proliferation of plants was also aided by a rash of insects: including beetles, ants, wasps and bees. Nevertheless, the enormous grasslands that would come to cover swathes of the planet were still a few million years away.

The late Cretaceous period also saw many well-known dinosaurs come to the fore, as new species evolved and the power balance shifted. The Tyrannosaurus rex rose to the top of the food chain in the north, while the Spinosaurus did the same in the south. In addition, the northern continents were home to herds of herbivores such as the Triceratops.

Meanwhile, the shifting continents created the necessary conditions for reptiles and amphibians to thrive. The expanded coastlines became home to all manner of beasts: including crocodiles, salamanders, turtles, frogs and snakes. The skies were dominated by enormous pterosaurs, but they found competition from the increasingly diverse array of birds.

In fact, the ancestors of many present-day birds can be traced back to the Cretaceous period. While fossil records show modern birds can be traced back around 60 million years, a 2008 study which appeared in the journal BMC Biology revised that estimation by some 40 million years. As a result, it’s thought that the lineage of pelicans, sandpipers, cormorants and more all began in the Cretaceous period.

Life prospered on the shores, in the skies and in the oceans, too. The plesiosaurs were replaced in shallow waters by the snakelike mosasaurs during this time, while modern sea creatures including sharks and rays became commonplace. And coral reefs continued to blossom in warm waters – formed of rudist clams like the one analyzed in the 2020 study.

While much of life on Earth in the Cretaceous period is well-documented, less is known about the cosmic conditions at the time. But thanks to the aforementioned shell, that may be about to change. Indeed, the positively ancient fossil has revealed an astonishing secret about the planet’s rotation. And in turn, it’s provided scientists with enough knowledge to estimate the length of a single day on Earth some 70 million years ago.

Prior to these recent revelations, scientists did have a general grasp on how the Earth’s rotation has changed over the years. We know, for instance, that it has been going on for almost the entirety of the planet’s existence. But because the change has been so slow in the grand scheme of things, it has been almost impossible to track year-on-year.

The planet’s day/night cycle increases in length by roughly 1.7 milliseconds every century, according to Scientific American. That’s not a statistic you’d ever notice, of course, but over millions of years it can make an enormous difference. The phenomenon is driven by the way the Sun and our Moon interact with Earth on a cosmic scale. Effectively, it’s all caused by gravity and the tides.

You see, the Moon is gradually spiraling away from the Earth at a rate of approximately 1.5 inches every year. NASA’s James Williams described the effects of this trend to the publication in 2010. The senior research scientist explained, “You’re putting energy into the Moon’s orbit and taking it out of the Earth’s spin.”

The Moon’s gravity controls the tides in our oceans, which outpace the former planet’s orbit due to the speed at which the Earth rotates. The resulting displaced mass pulls the planet forward, while the Earth’s rotation is simultaneously slowed by friction on the seabed. Together, these factors result in the imperceptible extension to the length of our days. Our years remain the same length, however, because our planet’s orbit around the Sun remains constant.

To discover the rate at which the Moon is pulling away from Earth, Williams pointed lasers at reflectors left behind by Russian probes and U.S. astronauts in the 1960s and ‘70s. First, he calculated the time it took for the beam to return to Earth. Then, Williams compared changes between multiple results to reach the current figure of 1.5 inches per year.

Generally, the trend established by studying the Moon is that the further back you go, the shorter the days were. But the tricky part is figuring out their precise length. Australian National University geophysicist Kurt Lambeck told Scientific American, “As you start going further back in time, the records get difficult to interpret. But the records have tended to support a general pattern going back that the number of days in the year increases.”

Analyses of the Earth’s tides can also tell us more about how the Moon was formed. Indeed, the data supports the dominant theory that the lunar body collided with our planet some 4.5 billion years ago. If it formed elsewhere and drifted into Earth’s gravity, Lambeck said, the tides wouldn’t have remained constant. Furthermore, Purdue University Earth and atmospheric scientist Jay Melosh added that our world had a speedy six-hour rotation immediately after the Moon impacted the Earth.

Over billions of years, the Moon has drifted from its initial orbit of 16,000 miles to its current distance of 239,000 miles. As a result, the Earth’s rotation has apparently slowed four times over. And that’s what’s still happening now, as the Moon continues to pull further away from the planet. But to really trace the exact length of a day between those two epochs, you need to dig deep into scientific evidence.

And the aforementioned fossil mollusk studied by de Winter helps us discover how the length of time in a day has changed. Owing to the way it progressively builds its layers, the researchers could use the rudist clam to accurately measure how long a day was 70 million years ago. The scientist added to Cosmos magazine in March 2020 that the shell is “a bit comparable to tree rings.”

By carefully studying these lasers, the scientists determined that back then, the Earth rotated 372 times a year. That adds up to seven more days than our current year – making the average length of a day 23 and a half hours. Effectively, then, a day on Earth when dinosaurs roamed was actually half an hour shorter than it is now.

“We have about four to five data points per day, and this is something that you almost never get in geological history,” de Winter told AGU. “We can basically look at a day 70 million years ago. It’s pretty amazing.” To do so, though, the research team had to make very careful use of a laser on the ancient fossil.

This technique allowed the scientists to examine the shell’s composition at a scale not visible through microscopes. First, they used the laser to fire tiny holes into the fossil, in order to gain a clearer understanding of its layers. They were then able to extract those layers in minuscule increments.

Each layer peeled back in this way was equivalent to approximately a quarter of the growth incurred over a single day in the clam’s life. The researchers then used that data to extend the fossil’s rate of growth over a nine-year span. From there, they could accurately determine the length of a day at the time the shell was in its prime.

“This allows us to measure how the composition of the shell changed over short time periods and learn about very rapid changes in the shell’s environment,” de Winter told Cosmos magazine. And from those findings, he continued, “[We could] count the number of days in a year, because we can also see seasonal cycles.”

Most climate models of the ancient past examine changes taking place over tens of thousands of years. However, this mollusk has allowed researchers to drill down into changes occurring over the lifetime of a previously living organism. Indeed, as well as the length of a day, the shell has also been able to accurately reveal climate conditions 70 million years ago.

For instance, analysis of the clam has shown that temperatures of the oceans in the late Cretaceous period were actually warmer than previous estimates. Winters were as hot as 86°C, while summers reached a blistering heat of 104°C. According to de Winter, those temperatures were likely reaching the maximum that mollusks were able to withstand.

Rudist expert Peter Skelton – who wasn’t involved in de Winter’s study – commented on the team’s findings to AGU. He said, “The high fidelity of this data-set has allowed the authors to draw two particularly interesting inferences that help to sharpen our understanding of both Cretaceous astrochronology and rudist paleobiology.”

The research has essentially provided the most accurate reading yet of the length of a day in the late Cretaceous period. What’s more, it has also helped to fill in some of the blanks concerning the Moon’s rotation and influence on Earth. That’s because while the lunar planet recession rate currently stands at around 1.5 inches per year, the experts believe that it’s impossible for that to have always been the case.

If the recession rate had never changed, it would mean the Moon would essentially have been inside the Earth just 1.4 billion years ago. But we know that the former planet is much older than that – having likely collided with our planet around 4.5 billion years ago. That suggests, then, that the rate at which the Moon is pulling away has changed over time.

Astonishingly, tracing a nine-year span of this ancient clam’s life has helped scientists better understand those changes. Talking to Cosmos magazine, de Winter said, “The evolution of the Earth-Moon distance must have been more complex, but we don’t know exactly how. This type of measurement helps astronomers create better models about how the Earth-Moon system behaved from the moment of the [latter planet’s] formation.”

Seventy million years is really just a fraction of the Moon’s history, however. So, it’s no surprise that going forward, the study’s authors hope to apply their new laser-focused method to even older fossils. And in doing so, they hope to capture similarly precise snapshots of the differing lengths of days further back in time.

The scientific potential of these fossils doesn’t end with studying the Moon, though. Indeed, they also allow researchers to analyze environmental changes on a daily basis. Acknowledging that it’s a slow process, De Winter added, “Think of large storms or very hot days. It is hard to find fossils as well-preserved as the specimen we used, and [the work] takes a lot of time and effort.”

Nevertheless, the ability to interpret weather patterns in such detail has “big implications” for studying ancient climates, according to de Winter. And in turn, it can help inform scientists about what’s to come. He concluded, “We climate scientists are very interested in such reconstructions. They may teach us how patterns in extreme weather and climate will evolve in the near future.”