Trees from the genus Pinus are so common across the Northern Hemisphere that it probably seems as if they’ve been here forever. But now we know that they date back at least 140 million years to the Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs still stomped around the Earth.

Scientists from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London, have found the oldest pine tree fossils yet to be discovered, in a rock quarry in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.

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The 140-million-year-old fossils are preserved as charcoal, after burning in wildfires.Howard Falcon-Lang/Royal Holloway, University of London

Science magazine reports that one charred twig, just a half of a centimeter in diameter, has small divots where pine needle shoots once poked out. The specimens are some 11 million years older than the oldest previously discovered pine fossil.

Interestingly, the fossils appear to be charred from a fire. When the tree was alive, the atmosphere had high oxygen levels,and the temperature was high. That created prime conditions for fires. Pine trees actually have evolved to burn and spread forest fires, so that their pine cones can germinate on the charred forest floor without competition.

“The fossils show that wildfires raged through the earliest pine forests and probably shaped the evolution of this important tree,” researcher Howard Falcon-Lang said in a press release.

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The specimens, which are described in Geology journal, were preserved as charcoal within rocks from a quarry.

“It was only when I digested (the samples) in acid that these beautiful fossils fell out,” Dr Falcon-Lang told BBC News.