A sequence of unusual vertical tubes, arranged in multiple groups, and each tube several meters high occurs in the Middlesboro Member of the Lee Formation (Lower Pennsylvanian). These structures are controversial with various interpretations suggesting either plant or animal origin. Observations supporting a plant origin include: 1) numerous C- and D-shaped, and multichambered tube cross sections are similar to fern and seed fern structures, 2) numerous membrane relicts loosely enclosing the tubes are similar to fern and seed fern tissues, 3) microscopic bundles are observed in cross-sectional thin sections, 4) presence of carbonaceous material and reported fecal pellets over a vertical distance in excess of 5 m are consistent with deteriorating plant material, not escape structures, 5) tubes are composed of casts and molds, but lack spreite or other features typical of escape structures, 6) tubes occur in clusters about one meter in diameter and are associated with coaly material at their base, which suggests that the clusters represent trees, 7) other trace fossils are absent in the enclosing sandstone, 8) tubes branch upward, which is a common structure in plants but unlikely in escape structures, 9) a coalified root structure was found at the base of the sandstone, and 10) all the tubes extend from the bottom of the sandstone to the top. The probability of burrowing animals escaping through as much as 8 m of sand with 100 percent survivorship is low.
The structures may represent a stand of pteridosperms with each “tree” approximately 1–1.5 m in diameter. The individual pipe-organ structures represent aerial stems, shoots, and adventitious roots; each cluster of pipe-organ structures represents a single tree.
Based upon sedimentologic features such as presence of 1) channel form, 2) scoured base, and 3) fining-upward sequence, we interpret the sandstone containing the pipe-organ structures to have been deposited in a sandy fluvial or tidal channel. The unidirectional cross-bed dips, poor sorting, occurrence only of very restrictive fauna and terrestrial flora, position of the sandstone above a possible floodplain facies, and lack of characteristic tidal structures suggest that the sandstone is more probably a sandy fluvial channel that may have minor tidal influence.