This cypress tree stood with the mastodons. (All the photos in this blog entry are from www.ancientcypress.com)
In 2003 workers mining sand along the Little Pee Dee River and the Lynches River in South Carolina discovered ancient cypress logs 40 feet below the present day surface of the land. They found 70 cypress logs at the Lynches River site that were carbon dated to between 39,000 and 45,000 years old. They found 20 logs at the Little Pee Dee River site dating to 25,000 years old. They found woody material from other species as well but information on them has yet to be published. Some of the logs were 96 feet long and a few had 1000 growth rings, meaning they lived to be over 1000 years old. The logs were between 1-8 feet in diameter.
Depth of the excavation where the cypress logs were found.
Just imagine all the now vanished wildlife that roamed around, landed, climbed, and even lived on these trees. Mastodons, a semi-aquatic species that inhabited river bottomland swamps and ate cypress twigs, certainly stood with these trees when both lived. (In an article written for The State newspaper a journalist incorrectly stated that woolly mammoths may have rested in their shade. It’s unlikely woolly mammoths lived this far south, though Columbian mammoths did. Mammoths probably avoided swampy habitat.) Long-horned bison grazed upon the cane grass in openings by the trees when the swamp dried out. Perhaps, if these trees had eyes, they could’ve witnessed jaguars or saber-tooths lurking in the swamp, ready to spring upon deer and peccary. Maybe monster-sized catfish swam by their roots during high water. Ivory billed woodpeckers, Carolina parakeets, and Pleistocene vampire bats nested or roosted in the cypress cavities.
The find is a tremendous source of scientific knowledge. Scientists can use dendrochronolgy (the study of tree rings) and correlate the tree ring growth with carbon dates to determine past climatic patterns. Just like with upland trees, cypress rings grow fat during wet years and skinny during dry years. 40,000 years ago, the cypress swamp at the Lynches River site stood during an interstadial, a warm climate phase within the Ice Age when sea levels rose due to glacial meltwater. One would expect to see larger tree rings during the interstadial. The cypress forest near the Little Pee Dee River stood during the Last Glacial Maximum–evidence that a warm thermal enclave did occur on the lower southeastern coastal plain then because cypress swamps couldn’t exist, if the climate was too cool. Both sites are on the lower coastal plain, relatively close to the ocean. Scientists believe slow sedimentation from changing river patterns eventually covered the forests in both locations, but they haven’t ruled out a marine transgression.
The discovery of fossil cypress wood was not only beneficial for scientists, but businessmen took advantage of it too. The owners of the sand quarries established Ancient Bald Cypress LLC, and they manufacture custom made products out of the wood. Incredibly, although the wood was water saturated when excavated, it had not become fossilized, and when dried proved excellent for fine artisan furniture. They make and sell everything from $500 duck callers and $1200 bread bowls to $25,000 queen-sized beds and $150,000 custom made canoes. This is a real testament to the durability of cypress wood. I can understand why cypress wood is used for roofing shingles.
The sites in South Carolina aren’t the only ones where cypress logs have been discovered. In 1921 construction workers building a skyscraper 4 blocks from the White House discovered ancient cypress logs dating to over 100,000 years old. They were buried by ocean sediment after rising sea levels caused the Potomac River estuary to cover the cypress swamp with mud and sand. Washington DC is slightly north of the present day range of cypress–a clue that the climate was warmer during the Sangamonian Interglacial than it is today. That sea level eventually rose even higher than where it is today is definite evidence that climate was once warmer, and if as scientists predict, sea level rises due to present day global warming, the nation’s capital will some day have to be moved. Pleistocene-age cypress logs have also been excavated in Newport News, Virginia; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Flanner Beach, North Carolina; and in Illinois. A >50,000 year old fossil beaver dam consisting of cypress wood was excavated in a kaolin clay mine in Deepstep, Washington County, Georgia as well.
Cypress trees lived during the time of the dinosaurs and were once more widespread, living as far north as the Arctic Circle when the hot humid worldwide climate fostered the growth of swamps all over the planet.
Today, the oldest cypress tree in the world is found in the Black River Nature Conservancy Reserve in North Carolina. It’s 1700 years old. Its great age saved it from being logged because cypress wood from trees that old is of poor quality.