Go back more than 300 million years – further back than the time taken for the Sun to complete a lap of the entire Milky Way, long before the first dinosaur was ever even a glint in a non-dinosaurian ornithodiran’s eye. This period, called the Carboniferous, was almost alien in its life when compared to today.

Life on land was relatively new, but still diverse. Amphibians and arthropods were common and often quite large; reptiles had only recently developed from their amphibian ancestors.

Water was lower and the wide-ranging wetlands of the the tropics were covered with coal forests. These aren’t literal forests of coal, but huge areas of swamp and primitive trees. There were so many that the atmospheric concentration of oxygen was at its all-time highest: 35% compared to the modern 21%.

Sigillaria – Tim Bertelink [CC BY-SA 4.0]

The trees would die, as organisms often do, but they would not rot: bacteria and fungi that could decompose their resilient trunks of lignin and suberin simply did not yet exist, and continued not to exist for another 60 million years. When one of these shallow-rooted trees fell over, it could remain there for thousands of years until it was buried by soil. The carbon they contained was not released back into the ecosystem, so most of it was gradually compressed into almost 90% of all available coal today.

But enough about dead trees and coalification – living forests are so much more interesting. The large plants of this period were so unlike anything today: tall, thin trunks comprised almost entirely of bark and splitting evenly at each branch, with shallow, sprawling roots.

It would have been a wonder to wander amongst one of these ancient forests. Well, when it comes to the internet, few things are too niche: it’s possible to have just such an experience from your own home. The Carboniferous Forest Simulation allows you to do just that.

a video from one of its creators

There are quite a few options for, or perhaps because of, the rather limited scope of the project. You can select plants from ferns to tree for some information about them, or change between daylight, evening sun and nighttime.

a more in-depth video that shows most of what there is to show, apart from the freecam mode

It claims to be a 0.1 alpha, but is far more stable and complete than some of the software that is often labelled a beta or full release. However, as such, it’s not well-packaged for distribution: it’s not portable, runs only on Windows, and the installation is somewhat involved. Some plants are also missing information, and there are no animals beyond a constant background chittering.

I think it’s the sort of thing where you already know if it’s something you want to download. I’m just thrilled something like this exists in the first place.

You can see some of the development history on the Fossil Forum.

Maybe some day there’ll be an extensive program with scenes from all over the world for every period of natural history. Perhaps I should learn more about 3D modelling and make it happen… perhaps…