Volcanic eruptions and their deposits provide paleobiologists with an array of depositional environments in which to investigate the conditions in which exceptionally preserved flora and fauna are preserved. Studies of vegetation patterns before and after eruptions have shown that tropical vegetation makes a very rapid recovery at the vegetational level (proportion of devastated land covered). The recolonisation of the rare elements of a diversified flora, however, is slow, and so is the rebound of floristic richness, assembled over centuries from surrounding patches of vegetation and from in situ speciation.
Two major volcanic events that occurred in the past 15 years were studied in an attempt to understand the processes and complex patterns of plant deposition in volcanic landscapes. Both volcanoes gave rise to terrestrial, andesitic, explosive eruptions that gave little warning of their absolute magnitude or duration. In both eruptions, sediment-dammed lakes were formed in which a large quantity of plant material was trapped. In both instances, forests were killed and both standing and fallen trunks record the composition of the pre-eruption flora. The vegetation present in the vicinity of the volcanoes was, in the case of Mount St Helens (Washington, U.S.A.), dense coniferous forest living in a cool temperate climate and, in the case of El Chichón (Chiapas, Mexico), remnants of paratropical rainforest alternating with patches of agricultural land.
Litter layers are present under the tephra at both volcanic sites, yet the pattern of deposition and quality of the plant material differs dramatically between the two, in part because of differences in the types of eruptions and in part because of the nature of the plants available for burial. One of the most significant styles of burial, unexpected in the air-fall ash deposits, is the presence of more than one eruptive layer generated by eruptions only hours apart. These separate eruption layers have different lithological characteristics and the plant deposits buried in the different layers are different in taxonomic composition. Significantly, leaves in the upland volcanic-ash deposits are preserved thus far for 10 years, even in the tropical settings where root growth might be expected to have obliterated all signs of depositional stratigraphy. These impressions and compressions have a high likelihood of entering the fossil record and provide an excellent example of upland deposition and preservation.