60-Second Science

Modern Rivers Shaped by Trees

Rivers were wide and shallow until the evolution of treelike plants, which got the waterways into line. Christopher Intagliata reports

Rivers today have high muddy banks, sandbars and bends. But they didn’t always look that way. Because it wasn’t until the evolution of treelike plants, some 330 million years ago, that rivers were corralled into their current form. Before that, ancient waters flowed wide and shallow over the land, with little to constrain them other than mountains. So says a study in the journal Nature Geoscience. [Neil S. Davies and Martin R. Gibling, "Evolution of fixed-channel alluvial plains in response to Carboniferous vegetation"]

Researchers looked through over 400 studies of the Earth’s rock record, and visited nearly 70 field sites. And they found that channel formations in the rock—a signature of modern rivers—didn’t appear until the Carboniferous period, when tree-like plants evolved. That’s because larger plants needed deeper roots, which stabilized river banks and forced rivers into narrower paths. And deep roots helped form sticky clays, which are harder to erode.

All this engineering was to the trees’ advantage, the researchers say. Because river banks provide trees with easy access to water, without the constant risk of flooding. Pretty much what we humans want. Many of our greatest cities formed along river banks—for which we might have trees to thank.

—Christopher Intagliata

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

[Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group.]



Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.


Get All-Access Digital + Print >


Email this Article