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Fires in the Cenozoic: a late flowering of flammable ecosystems

By William John Bond

Abstract

Modern flammable ecosystems include tropical and subtropical savannas, steppe grasslands, boreal forests and temperate sclerophyll shrublands. Despite the apparent fiery nature of much contemporary vegetation, terrestrial fossil evidence would suggest we live in a time of low fire activity relative to the deep past. The inertinite content of coal, fossil charcoal, is strikingly low from the Eocene to the Pleistocene and no charcoalified mesofossils have been reported for the Cenozoic. Marine cores have been analysed for charcoal in the North Pacific, the north and south Atlantic off Africa, and the south China sea. These tell a different story with the oldest records indicating low levels of fire activity from the Eocene but a surge of fire from the late Miocene (~7 Ma). Phylogenetic studies of woody plants adapted to frequent savanna fires show them beginning to appear from the Late Miocene with peak origins in the late Pliocene in both South American and African lineages. Phylogenetic studies indicate ancient origins (60 Ma+) for clades characteristic of flammable sclerophyll vegetation from Australia and the Cape region of South Africa. However, as for savannas, there was a surge of speciation from the Late Miocene associated with the retreat of closed fire-intolerant forests. The wide geographic spread of increased fire activity in the last few million years suggests a global cause. However none of the potential global factors (oxygen, rainfall seasonality, CO2 , novel flammable growth forms) provides an adequate explanation as yet. The global patterns and processes of fire and flammable vegetation in the Cenozoic, especially since the Late Miocene, deserve much more attention to better understand fire in the earth system

Topics: Shrubland, savannas, flammable ecosystems, fossil charcoal, phylogenetic habitat reconstruction, Plant culture, SB1-1110
Publisher: Frontiers Media S.A.
Year: 2015
DOI identifier: 10.3389/fpls.2014.00749
OAI identifier: oai:doaj.org/article:8ed3f4ad72d344b58c1afbc307016f43
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