10 Plants Lost to History

It's easy to see how 19th-century fossil hunters could get away with claiming Lepidodendron fossils were evidence of prehistoric giant lizards. There be dragons! DEA / G. CIGOLINI/De Agostini/Getty Images

Imagine a densely packed stand of treelike plants with scaly bark. The trunks reach as high as 100 feet (30 meters) into the air, but only the tallest specimens have branched out to reveal clusters of long, narrow, grasslike leaves. The rest just look like tall telephone poles with an alligator-skin texture. These are Lepidodendron, a now-extinct plant that inhabited low-lying, swampy areas some 299 to 359 million years ago during the Carboniferous period.

Lepidodendron were a little strange compared to today's plants. Despite their tall stature, they weren't very woody; rather, they were supported by a stiff, exterior barklike structure. This rigid outer shell had diamond-shaped leaf scars that formed as the plant grew and provided it with fuel through photosynthesis. Later, this unique scaly texture came to characterize Lepidodendron fossils, which 19th-century amateur fossil hunters displayed at fairs, claiming they were from the skin of prehistoric giant lizards and snakes.

At the end of its 10- to 15-year life, Lepidodendron finally branched out and sprouted leaves. This is when it reproduced, too, though probably just once. Still, the plant had an impressive reign before conifers and other plants replaced it at the dawn of the Mesozoic era. It is now one of the most common fossils found in Late Carboniferous rock [source: Kenrick and Davies].