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Fossil evidence for open, Proteaceae-dominated heathlands and fire in the Late Cretaceous of Australia
PREMISE OF THE STUDY: The origin of biomes is of great interest globally. Molecular phylogenetic and pollen evidence suggest that several plant lineages that now characterize open, burnt habitats of the sclerophyll biome, became established during the Late Cretaceous of Australia. However, whether this biome itself dates to that time is problematic, fundamentally because of the near-absence of relevant, appropriately aged, terrestrial plant macro- or mesofossils.
METHODS: We recovered, identified, and interpreted the ecological significance of fossil pollen, foliar and other remains from a section of core drilled in central Australia, which we dated as Late Campanian–Maastrichtian.
KEY RESULTS: The sediments contain plant fossils that indicate nutrient-limited, open, sclerophyllous vegetation and abundant charcoal as evidence of fire. Most interestingly, >30 pollen taxa and at least 12 foliage taxa are attributable to the important Gondwanan family Proteaceae, including several minute, amphistomatic, and sclerophyllous foliage forms consistent with subfamily Proteoideae. Microfossils, including an abundance of Sphagnales and other wetland taxa, provided strong evidence of a fenland setting. The local vegetation also included diverse Ericaceae and Liliales, as well as a range of ferns and gymnosperms.
CONCLUSIONS: The fossils provide strong evidence in support of hypotheses of great antiquity for fire and open vegetation in Australia, point to extraordinary persistence of Proteaceae that are now emblematic of the Mediterranean-type climate southwestern Australian biodiversity hotspot and raise the profile of open habitats as centers of ancient lineages.
Australian Research Council
Publication titleAmerican Journal of Botany
Department/SchoolSchool of Natural Sciences
PublisherBotanical Soc Amer Inc
Place of publicationOhio State Univ-Dept Botany, 1735 Neil Ave, Columbus, USA, Oh, 43210
Rights statementCopyright 2015 Botanical Society of America