Science2015-01-19 4:27 PM

Linked canopy, climate, and faunal change in the Cenozoic of Patagonia

Regan E. Dunn, Caroline A. E. Strömberg, Richard H. Madden, Matthew J. Kohn, Alfredo A. Carlini


Abstract

Vegetation structure is a key determinant of ecosystems and ecosystem function, but paleoecological techniques to quantify it are lacking. We present a method for reconstructing leaf area index (LAI) based on light-dependent morphology of leaf epidermal cells and phytoliths derived from them. Using this proxy, we reconstruct LAI for the Cenozoic (49 million to 11 million years ago) of middle-latitude Patagonia. Our record shows that dense forests opened up by the late Eocene; open forests and shrubland habitats then fluctuated, with a brief middle-Miocene regreening period. Furthermore, endemic herbivorous mammals show accelerated tooth crown height evolution during open, yet relatively grass-free, shrubland habitat intervals. Our Patagonian LAI record provides a high-resolution, sensitive tool with which to dissect terrestrial ecosystem response to changing Southern Ocean conditions during the Cenozoic.


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