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A critical framework for the assessment of biological palaeoproxies: predicting past climate and levels of atmospheric CO2 from fossil leaves

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-17, 07:37 authored by Gregory JordanGregory Jordan
This review uses proxies of past temperature and atmospheric CO2 composition based on fossil leaves to illustrate the uncertainties in biologically based proxies of past environments. Most leaf-based proxies are geographically local or genetically restricted and therefore can be confounded by evolution, extinction, changes in local environment or immigration of species. Stomatal frequency proxies illustrate how genetically restricted proxies can be particularly vulnerable to evolutionary change. High predictive power in the modern world resulting from the use of a very narrow calibration cannot be confidently extrapolated into the past (the Ginkgo paradox). Many foliar physiognomic proxies of climate are geographically local and use traits that are more or less fixed for individual species. Such proxies can therefore be confounded by floristic turnover and biome shifts in the region of calibration. Uncertainty in proxies tends to be greater for more ancient fossils. I present a set of questions that should be considered before using a proxy. Good proxies should be relatively protected from environmental and genetic change, particularly through having high information content and being founded on biomechanical or biochemical principles. Some current and potential developments are discussed, including those that involve more mechanistically sound proxies and better use of multivariate approaches.


Publication title

New Phytologist








School of Natural Sciences


Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Place of publication

9600 Garsington Rd, Oxford, England, Oxon, Ox4 2Dg

Rights statement

The definitive published version is available online at:

Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Terrestrial biodiversity

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