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A simple quantitative approach is presented for determining the relative importance of climate change and human impact in driving late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions. This method is designed to determine whether climate change or human impact alone can account for these extinctions, or whether both were important, acting independently (additively) and/or synergistically (multiplicatively). This approach is applied to the megafaunal extinction in the Última Esperanza region of southern Chile. In this region, there is a complex pattern of extinction. Records of environmental change include temperature proxies and pollen records that capture the transition from cold grasslands to warmer, moister forests, as well as evidence of initial human arrival. Uncertainty in extinction times and time of human arrival complicates the analysis, as does uncertainty about the size of local human populations, and the nature, strength, and persistence of their impacts through the late Pleistocene and early Holocene. Results of the Ultima Esperanza analysis were equivocal, with evidence for climate- and human-driven extinction, with each operating alone or additively. The results depend on the exact timing of extinctions and human arrival, and assumptions about the kinds of pressures humans put on the megafauna. There was little evidence for positive synergistic effects, while the unexpected possibility of negative synergistic interactions arose in some scenarios. Application of this quantitative approach highlights the need for higher precision dating of the extinctions and human arrival, and provides a platform for sharpening our understanding of these megafaunal extinctions.
Ecometrics is the quantitative study of functional traits at the community level, and the environmental sorting of those traits at regional and continental scales. Functional traits are properties of organisms that have a direct physical or physiological relationship to an underlying quality of the environment, which in turn has indirect links to broader environmental factors such as temperature, precipitation, elevation, atmospheric composition, or sea level. When the same environmental factor affects the performance of many taxa, ecometric sorting is the result. Ecometric patterns in trait distributions across space and through time are therefore a product of biogeographic sorting, evolution, and extinction driven by changes in Earth systems. We review concepts associated with ecometrics, with examples that illustrate how trait-based approaches differ from taxon-based methods, how ecometrics can be used to study Earth-life transitions in the fossil record, and how ecometrics can be used to compare Earth-life transitions that differ in temporal or geographic scale. This paper focuses on the climatic and biome changes of the Great Plains of North America during the Miocene, when grasslands came to be the dominant vegetation type, and of the Anthropocene of the American Midwest, which saw extensive landscape changes in the nineteenth century.
The transition to the diverse and complex biosphere of the Ediacaran and early Paleozoic is the culmination of a complex history of tectonic, climate, and geochemical development. Although much of this rise occurred in the middle and late intervals of the Neoproterozoic Era (1000–541 million years ago [Ma]), the foundation for many of these developments was laid much earlier, during the latest Mesoproterozic Stenian Period (1200–1000 Ma) and early Neoproterozoic Tonian Period (1000–720 Ma). Concurrent with the development of complex ecosystems, changes in the composition, configuration, and tectonic interaction between continental plates have been proposed as major shapers of both climate and biogeochemical cycling, but there is little support in the geologic record for overriding tectonic controls. Biogeochemical evidence, however, suggests that an expansion of marine oxygen concentrations may have stabilized nutrient cycles and created more stable environmental conditions under which complex, eukaryotic life could gain a foothold and flourish. The interaction of tectonic, biogeochemical, and climate processes, as described in this paper, resulted in the establishment of habitable environments that fostered the Ediacaran and early Phanerozoic radiations of animal life and the emergence of complex, modern-style ecosystems.
Atmospheric dust constitutes particles <100 μm, or deposits thereof (continental or marine); dust includes ‘loess,’ defined as continental aeolian silt (4–62.5 μm). Dust is well-known from Earth's near-time (mostly Quaternary) record, and recognized as a high-fidelity archive of climate, but remains under-recognized for deep time. Attributes such as thickness, grain size, magnetism, pedogenesis, and provenance of dust form valuable indicators of paleoclimate to constrain models of atmospheric dustiness. Additionally, dust acts as an agent of climate change via both direct and indirect effects on radiative forcing, and on productivity, and thus the biosphere and carbon cycling. Dust from the late Paleozoic of western equatorial Pangea reflects ultimate derivation from orogens (ancestral Rocky Mountains, Central Pangean Mountains), whereas dust from southwestern Pangea (Bolivia) reflects both proximal volcanism and crustal material. Records of dust conducive to cyclostratigraphic analysis, such as data on dust inputs from carbonate sections, or magnetism in paleo-loess, reveal dust cyclicity at Milankovitch timescales, but resolution is compromised if records are too brief, or irregular in interval or magnitude of the attribute being measured. Climate modeling enables identification of the primary regions of dust sourcing in deep time, and impacts of dust on radiative balance and biogeochemistry. Deep-time modeling remains preliminary, but is achievable, and indicates principal dust sources in the Pangean subtropics, with sources increasing during colder climates. Carbon cycle modeling suggests that glacial-phase dust increases stimulated extreme productivity, potentially increasing algal activity and perturbing ecosystem compositions of the late Paleozoic.
One of the most severe extinction events in Earth history, the Triassic–Jurassic extinction, struck against a backdrop of radical increases in atmospheric CO2 and supercontinent breakup. This juxtaposition of first-order geophysical and biotic changes produced excellent case studies in Earth-Life Transitions. Recent recognition of a worldwide “carbonate gap” following the extinction has focused attention on causes, often invoked as eustacy or ocean acidification, but the ecology of the extinction aftermath remains poorly understood. Results from paleoecological studies on three separate Triassic–Jurassic records are presented and incorporated into regional depositional models. Examination of the Penarth Group of Great Britain reveals a widespread, laterally homogenous, level-bottom microbial stromatolite regime across the innermost ramp. The Sunrise Formation in Nevada, USA, was deposited during a biosiliceous (“glass”) regime dominated by demosponges across the inner ramp that lasted at least two million years. Investigations of the Pucará group in the central Andes of Peru revealed a demosponge-dominated level-bottom glass ramp with many similarities to the Nevada deposits, but offering broader regional extent and variation in recorded depositional settings. This suite of studies demonstrates state-shifts in marine ecological systems that also profoundly altered regional sedimentation regimes. The sponge-dominated systems produced glass ramp conditions instead of carbonate ramps, and indicate the importance of marine silica concentrations. The post-extinction changes in regional marine ecology demonstrate connectivity to changes in global climate and terrigenous weathering driven by global-scale geophysical processes.
During the Cretaceous and Paleogene, the Indian subcontinent was isolated as it migrated north from the east coast of Africa to collide with Asia. As it passed over the Reunion hotspot in the late Maastrichtian–early Danian, a series of lava flows extruded, known as the Deccan Traps. Also during this interval, there was a major mass-extinction event at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary, punctuated by a meteorite impact at Chicxulub, Mexico. What were the biological implications of these changes in paleogeography and the extensive volcanism in terms of biodiversity, evolution, and biogeography? By combining chronostratigraphic, paleosol, and paleobotanical data, an understanding of how the ecosystems and climates changed and the relative contributions of the Chicxulub impact, Deccan Traps volcanism, and paleogeographic isolation can be gained. Understanding relative ages of paleobotanical localities is crucial to determining floristic changes, and is challenging because different methods (e.g., magnetostratigraphy, radiometric dating, vertebrate and microfossil biostratigraphy) sometimes give conflicting answers, or have not been done for paleobotanical localities. Climatic data can be obtained quantitatively by studying paleosol geochemistry, as well as qualitatively by examining functional traits and nearest living relatives of fossil plants. An additional challenge is revising macrofossil data, which includes some confidently identified taxa and others with uncertain affinities. This is important for understanding ecosystem composition both spatially and temporally, as well as the biogeographic implications of an isolated India.
Vegetation affects feedbacks in Earth's hydrologic system, but is constrained by physiological adaptations. In extant ecosystems, the mechanisms controlling plant water used can be measured experimentally; for extinct plants in the recent geological past, water use can be inferred from nearest living relatives, assuming minimal evolutionary change. In deep time, where no close living relatives exist, fossil material provides the only information for inferring plant water use. However, mechanistic models for extinct plant water use must be built on first principles and tested on extant plants. Plants serve as a conduit for water movement from the soil to the atmosphere, constrained by tissue-level construction and gross architecture. No single feature, such as stomata or veins, encompasses enough of the complexity underpinning water-use physiology to serve as the basis of a model of functional water use in all (or perhaps any) extinct plants. Rather, a “functional whole plant” model must be used. To understand the interplay between plant and atmosphere, water use in relation to environmental conditions is investigated in an extinct plant, the seed fern Medullosa ((Division Pteridospermatophyta), by reviewing methods for reconstructing physiological variables such as leaf and stem hydraulic capacity, photosynthetic rate, transpiration rate, stomatal conductance, and albedo. Medullosans had the potential for extremely high photosynthetic and assimilation rates, water transport, stomatal conductance, and transpiration—rates comparable to later angiosperms. When these high growth and gas exchange rates of medullosans are combined with the unique atmospheric gas composition of the late Paleozoic atmosphere, complex vegetation-environmental feedbacks are expected despite their basal phylogenetic position relative to post-Paleozoic seed plants.
Understanding the origin of modern communities is a fundamental goal of ecology, but reconstructing communities with durations of 103–106 years requires data from the fossil record. Early Pliocene to latest Pleistocene faunas and sediments in the Meade Basin and modern soils and rodents from the same area are used to examine the role of environmental change in the emergence of the modern community. Paleoenvironmental proxies measured on modern surface soils and paleosols are described, and faunal dynamics of fossil rodents are discussed. Mean annual precipitation (MAP) was estimated from elemental concentrations and magnetic properties, and warm-season temperature and δ18O of soil water was estimated using carbonate isotope paleothermometry on pedogenic nodules. MAP and temperature estimates from paleosols exhibit no short-term variability, no long-term trends, and generally bracket modern values. Estimated soil water δ18O values increased through time, suggesting aridification played a role in the evolution of the regional grassland ecosystem. Carbon isotope analyses of biomarkers are used to examine the abundance of C4 grasses, which suggest more C4 biomass and more variability in C4 biomass than carbonate proxies. Rodent species richness remained constant due to balanced rates of extinction and immigration, both of which show episodic spikes consistent with a balance between forcing mechanisms that result in equilibrium on long time scales. Overall, these results suggest that different mechanisms of faunal change may be acting at different time scales, although the stratigraphic resolution of paleoenvironmental proxies needs to be increased, and body size and dietary distributions of rodents need to be determined before which processes of change are most important can be decided.