The landscape of Central Africa 65 million years ago was a low-elevation tropical belt, but the jury is still out on whether the region's mammals browsed and hunted beneath the canopy of a lush rainforest.
The scientific evidence for a tropical rainforest at that time is weak and far from convincing, says paleobotanist Bonnie F. Jacobs at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Fossil pollen from Central and West Africa provide no definitive evidence for communities of rainforest trees at the beginning of the Cenozoic, says Jacobs, an expert in the paleobotany of Africa soon after dinosaurs had gone extinct. It was the start of the age of mammals, and Africa was largely an island continent.
Many Cenozoic mysteries remain to be solved
The rainforest mystery is characteristic of the scientific uncertainty and unknowns surrounding Africa's ancient flora during the period called the Cenozoic. There are large gaps in the fossil record, says Jacobs, a co-author of "A Review of the Cenozoic Vegetation History of Africa." She is an associate professor in SMU's Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences.
The review, a chapter in "Cenozoic Mammals of Africa" (University of California Press, 2010), is the first of its kind since 1978 to review and interpret the Cenozoic paleobotanical record of Africa with paleogeographic maps showing paleobotanical site distributions through time. Jacobs co-authored the paper with Aaron D. Pan, a paleobotanist at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, and Christopher R. Scotese, in the Earth Sciences Department at the University of Texas at Arlington.
The 1008-page "Cenozoic Mammals of Africa" is the first comprehensive scientific reference of its kind since 1978, comprising 48 chapters by 64 experts. The volume summarizes and interprets the published fossil research to date of Africa's mammals, tectonics, geography, climate and flora of the past 65 million years.
Details sparse, but big picture emerges for past 65 million years
Paleobotanical data for Africa are generally meager and uneven for the Cenozoic, according to Jacobs and her co-authors.
In an original series of maps, they chart each Cenozoic Africa paleobotanical locale described in the published research to date. There are a mere 82 sites in all. Most of the sites date to 50 million years ago. Fewer date to 20 million, 30 million, 10 million and — perhaps most important — 2 million years ago, when the human family was evolving."Africa is disappointingly undersampled," say Jacobs and her colleagues. "This vast continent, roughly three times the area of the United States, has so far been documented by only a handful of Paleogene plant and vertebrate localities, and it has a Neogene record heavily biased toward the depositional basins of the East African Rift."
"As impressive as is the contemporary mammalian diversity of Africa, it is dwarfed by that of the Cenozoic," write the volume's editors, paleozoologist Lars Werdelin, the Swedish Museum of Natural History, and paleontologist William Joseph Sanders, the University of Michigan. Africa today represents 20 percent of the world's land mass, is the only continent to occupy both the north and south temperate zones, and is home now to more than 1,100 mammalian species, they write in the introduction.
Africa's paleobotanical record is key to a holistic understanding of ancient mammals, says H.B.S. Cooke in the preface. A mammal expert, Cooke was editor of the earlier 1978 scientific reference, "Evolution of African Mammals" (Harvard University Press).
"Most striking over the past years has been a shift in studying fossils from a largely descriptive taxonomy to a more analytical approach, including consideration of faunal associations, their distribution in time and space, and the environmental and climatic factors that prevailed and changed through time," Cooke writes in the preface to the new book. " … African prehistory has become more a study of paleobiology than mere paleontology."
To view a map or images of Cenozoic leaf fossils from Jacobs' field work in Africa go to SMU Research on flickr.
More scientific exploration needed to fill gaps
Scientific exploration to learn more about Africa's ancient vegetation is on the increase, say Jacobs and her co-authors. That should start to fill gaps in understanding, including the mystery of Africa's palms.
While palm trees are common in wet tropical forests worldwide, that's not the case in Africa today. Palm trees have not been found in abundance in Africa for the past 24 million years, regardless of whether the regional vegetation was forest, say the authors. Oddly, though, abundant palm samples have been found in some African locations dating between 65 million and 25 million years ago, including at Chilga in Ethiopia by Jacobs and Pan.
The implications of that difference are significant for the various endemic mammals of that time, many of which were absent by 23 million years ago, say the authors.
"We are fortunate that the sampling scale of most fossil localities is at the plant community level, and larger-scale changes took place one community at a time," they write. "Thus, as Africa becomes better sampled, the uneven record will ultimately become a more complete narrative of dynamic change at the community and ecosystem levels."
Funding for "Cenozoic Mammals of Africa" came from the Swedish Research Council; the University of Michigan's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and Museum of Paleontology; and the Regents of the University of California.
SMU is a private university in Dallas where nearly 11,000 students benefit from the national opportunities and international reach of SMU's seven degree-granting schools. For more information see www.smu.edu.
Margaret Allen | EurekAlert!
In times of climate change: What a lake’s colour can tell about its condition
21.09.2017 | Leibniz-Institut für Gewässerökologie und Binnenfischerei (IGB)
Did marine sponges trigger the ‘Cambrian explosion’ through ‘ecosystem engineering’?
21.09.2017 | Helmholtz-Zentrum Potsdam - Deutsches GeoForschungsZentrum GFZ
Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.
A warming planet
Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.
The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...
Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...
Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!
When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...
For the first time, physicists have successfully imaged spiral magnetic ordering in a multiferroic material. These materials are considered highly promising candidates for future data storage media. The researchers were able to prove their findings using unique quantum sensors that were developed at Basel University and that can analyze electromagnetic fields on the nanometer scale. The results – obtained by scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, the University of Montpellier and several laboratories from University Paris-Saclay – were recently published in the journal Nature.
Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously react to electric and magnetic fields. These two properties are rarely found together, and their combined...
19.09.2017 | Event News
12.09.2017 | Event News
06.09.2017 | Event News
22.09.2017 | Medical Engineering
22.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
22.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy