Although they have persisted for tens of millions of years, neotropical lowland forests have changed greatly in extent and composition due to climatic variation and to human impacts. In a symposium at the 2002 meetings of the Association for Tropical Biology, hosted by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), Panama, scientists presented the latest results of research on neotropical forests and their transformations up to the time of Columbus.
Bruce MacFadden, of the University of Florida, has re-examined a mammal fossils of mid-Miocene age (18-16 million years ago) collected in central Panama in the 1960s, but not previously described in detail. At the time a deep oceanic channel across eastern Panama separated North and South America. Although the species are closely related to those of North America of the same age (instead of geographically closer South America), most appear to have been adapted to forested habitats, rather than being grasslands species like those that dominated North America. In particular, the low-crowned teeth of herbivores reveal that they fed on soft-leaved forest vegetation rather than grasses, and future analysis of carbon isotope ratios in enamel may further confirm this.
Lake cores are increasingly being used to obtain records of pollen, phytoliths, charcoal, and other evidence of forest distribution and composition from throughout the neotropics over the past 20,000 years. Dolores Piperno, of STRI, described how this data shows colder, drier conditions than those of the present prevailed in many areas in the late Pleistocene. In some areas forests persisted, although they often contained a mix of lowland species with those found only at higher elevations today, creating tree communities quite different from modern ones. In others, grassland replaced forest. Later, after the arrival of humans, forests gradually retreated with the spread of slash-and-burn agriculture, only to return again when indigenous populations were decimated after colonization by Europeans. Barbara Leyden of the University of South Florida presented data from lake cores from the Yucatan Peninsula. Although stable isotopes identified a severe drought at the end of the Mayan Classic Period, the pollen record showed the vegetation was not greatly affected except for maize and associated weedy species.
Dolores Piperno | EurekAlert!
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