Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and UF, among others, found that many of the dominant plant families existing in today’s Neotropical rainforests — including legumes, palms, avocado and banana — have maintained their ecological dominance despite major changes in South America’s climate and geological structure.
The study, which appears this week in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined more than 2,000 megafossil specimens, some nearly 10 feet long, from the Cerrejón Formation in northern Colombia. The fossils are from the Paleocene epoch, which occurred in the 5- to 7-million-year period following the massive extinction event responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs.
“Neotropical rainforests have an almost nonexistent fossil record,” said study co-author Fabiany Herrera, a graduate student at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. “These specimens allow us to actually test hypotheses about their origins for the first time ever.”
Herrera said the new specimens, discovered in 2003, also provide information for future studies that promise to provide an even stronger understanding of the plants that formed the earliest Neotropical communities.
Many previous assumptions and hypotheses on the earliest rainforests are based on studies of pollen fossils, which did not provide information about climate, forest structure, leaf morphology or insect herbivory.
The new study provides evidence Neotropical rainforests were warmer and wetter in the late Paleocene than today but were composed of the same plant families that now thrive in rainforests. “We have the fossils to prove this,” Herrera said. “It is also intriguing that while the Cerrejón rainforest shows many of the characteristics of modern equivalents, plant diversity is lower.”
The site, one of the world’s largest open-pit coal mines, also yielded the fossil for the giant snake known as Titanoboa, described by UF scientists earlier this year.
“These new plant fossils show us that the forest during the time of Titanoboa, 58 million years ago, was similar in many ways to that of today,” said Florida Museum vertebrate paleontologist Jonathan Bloch, who described Titanoboa but was not part of the rainforest study. “Like Titanoboa, which is clearly related to living boas and anacondas, the ancient forest of northern Colombia had similar families of plants as we see today in that ecosystem. The foundations of the Neotropical rainforests were there 58 million years ago.”
Megafossils found at the Cerrejón site made it possible to use leaf structure to identify specimens down to the genus level. This resolution allowed the identification of plant genera that still exist in Neotropical rainforests. With pollen fossils, specimens can be categorized only to the family level.
Researchers were surprised by the relative lack of diversity found in the Paleocene rainforest, Herrera said. Statistical analyses showed that the plant communities found in the Cerrejón Formation were 60 percent to 80 percent less diverse than those of modern Neotropical rainforests. Evidence of herbivory also showed a low diversity level among insects.
The study’s authors say the relative lack of diversity indicates either the beginning of rainforest species diversification or the recovery of existing species from the Cretaceous extinction event.
The researchers estimate the Paleocene rainforest received about 126 inches of rainfall annually and had an average annual temperature greater than 86 degrees. The Titanoboa study, which used different methods, estimated an average temperature between 89 and 91 degrees. Today the region’s temperatures average about 81 degrees.
Herrera is now comparing fossils from the Cerrejón site to specimens from other Paleocene sites in Colombia to see how far the early rainforest extended geographically. He is also examining fossils from a Cretaceous site to determine differences in composition before and after the extinction event.
Fabiany Herrera | EurekAlert!
New Study Will Help Find the Best Locations for Thermal Power Stations in Iceland
19.01.2017 | University of Gothenburg
Water - as the underlying driver of the Earth’s carbon cycle
17.01.2017 | Max-Planck-Institut für Biogeochemie
For the first time ever, a cloud of ultra-cold atoms has been successfully created in space on board of a sounding rocket. The MAIUS mission demonstrates that quantum optical sensors can be operated even in harsh environments like space – a prerequi-site for finding answers to the most challenging questions of fundamental physics and an important innovation driver for everyday applications.
According to Albert Einstein's Equivalence Principle, all bodies are accelerated at the same rate by the Earth's gravity, regardless of their properties. This...
An important step towards a completely new experimental access to quantum physics has been made at University of Konstanz. The team of scientists headed by...
Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...
Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.
While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...
Laser-driving of semimetals allows creating novel quasiparticle states within condensed matter systems and switching between different states on ultrafast time scales
Studying properties of fundamental particles in condensed matter systems is a promising approach to quantum field theory. Quasiparticles offer the opportunity...
19.01.2017 | Event News
10.01.2017 | Event News
09.01.2017 | Event News
23.01.2017 | Health and Medicine
23.01.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
23.01.2017 | Process Engineering