Martin Becker, a paleontologist and professor of environmental science at William Paterson University, is one of three scientists featured in a new documentary, The Underwater Forest, that details the discovery and exploration of an ancient cypress forest found in 60 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico, 10 miles due south of Gulf Shores, Alabama.
Co-produced by This is Alabama and the Alabama Coastal Foundation, the documentary was written, directed and filmed by journalist Ben Raines. The Underwater Forest is scheduled to air on Alabama Public Television on July 23 and July 24.
Becker’s principal research is focused on fossil shark teeth found in locations hundreds of miles from the shoreline. He has traveled across the United States to inland areas from Arkansas and South Dakota to Utah and Alabama to collect fossils, which allow researchers to develop climate timelines from millions of years ago and track changes in sea levels. In the film, he is shown collecting shark teeth at an inland Alabama site more than 100 miles from the shoreline, where he finds dozens of 35-million-year-old shark teeth, as well as diving to the site.
“More than half the state of Alabama at one time was submerged underneath an ancestral ocean that dates back to the time of the dinosaurs,” Becker says in the film. “The record of that is recorded in the fossils, and in the regional geology…the Underwater Forest is about 120 miles distant, and the water in that area is about 60 feet deep. So, you are talking about a substantial amount of sea level change.”
The forest dates to an ice age more than 60,000 years ago, when sea levels were about 400 feet lower than they are today. The only known site where a coastal ice age forest this old has been preserved in place, with thousands of trees still rooted in the dirt they were growing in millennia ago, the location is providing new insights into everything from climate in the region to annual rainfall, insect populations, and the types of plants that inhabited the Gulf Coast before humans arrived in the new world. Scientific analysis of the site is ongoing.
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