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Ancient Wood Uncovered

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2003

or texture on the wood surface. As it dries, ancient wood shrinks a lot more, both along the grain and across the grain, than young wood. As a result, dried ancient wood has a unique texture that resembles an alligator's back.

Color is sometimes helpful in identifying ancient wood. Oak logs turn black inside within a few hundred years of being buried in soil or submerged in water. Some ancient wood changes from light brown to black within seconds of being broken and exposed to the air. On the other hand, some black walnut wood retains its color even after 8,000 years of burial in sediments.

Like modern wood, ancient wood provides habitat for insects, fishes, mammals and other animals. Ancient trees and logs can also change the force and direction of stream current, providing backwater areas and deep pools where fish can rest and feed.

Unlike modern wood, ancient wood often contains deep fissures that provide dragonflies and other invertebrates, crayfishes and leeches places where they can rest, feed and complete key stages in their life cycles. Portions of ancient logs and trees that rise above the water's surface are used for rest, refuge and travel by turtles, otters, beavers, muskrats, raccoons, and birds.

Age of Wood Collected from Missouri streams
Location County Age of wood
Lamine River Cooper/Morgan 3,070
Mussel Fork Creek Linn 2,580
Cedar Creek Putnam 11,950
Locust Creek Sullivan 3,030
Hinkson Creek Boone 4,425
Current River Shannon 4,230
Fabius River Scotland 2,339
Brushy Creek Boone 514

Ancient wood in Missouri streams can improve our understanding of historic conditions in bottomland forests, how these forests have changed over the millennia, and how trees and streams interact. Ancient oak in streams may lead to the development of oak tree-ring chronologies that can be used to model the productivity of bottomland forests and reconstruct climate over the past 12,000 years. Analyzing buried forest litter layers can reveal the composition and relative abundance of tree species in ancient bottomland forests. The age and mass of ancient wood can be used to understand the role that bottomland forests and rivers play in the global carbon balance and climate change.

Trees are such a natural part of stream communities that we often take them for granted as we canoe, fish, wade, and swim. The next time your canoe bumps up against a submerged log in the stream, or you cast your lure into a deep pool behind a fallen tree, think about how old that wood might be, how it came to rest there, and where it may be in a thousand years. The longevity of wood in Missouri streams help us better appreciate, understand and manage our forests and streams.

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