Long Before Trees Overtook the Land, Earth Was Covered by Giant Mushrooms
by Colin Schultz
From around 420 to 350 million years ago, when land plants were still the relatively new kids on the evolutionary block and “the tallest trees stood just a few feet high,” giant spires of life poked from the Earth. “The ancient organism boasted trunks up to 24 feet (8 meters) high and as wide as three feet (one meter),” said National Geographic in 2007. With the help of a fossil dug up in Saudi Arabia scientists finally figured out what the giant creature was: a fungus. (We think.)
The towering fungus spires would have stood out against a landscape scarce of such giants, said New Scientist in 2007.
Fossils of the organisms, known as Prototaxites, had peppered the paleontological findings of the past century and a half, ever since they were first discovered by a Canadian in 1859. But despite the fossil records, no one could figure out what the heck these giant spires were.
That all changed in 2007 when a study came out that concluded the spires were a fungus, like a gigantic early mushroom. But not everyone was sold on the idea that Prototaxites was an early fungus. No one’s questioning the spires’ existence—people just have trouble trying to imagine that such a huge structure could be a fungus…
(read more: Smithsonian Magazine)
Illustration by Mary Parrish, National Museum of Natural History; photograph reprinted from Review of Paleobotany and Palynology, Vol. 116, “Rotted wood—alga—fungus: the history and life of Prototaxites Dawson 1959,” by Francis Hueber, p. 146, Smithsonian Institution