Grassland fire ecology has roots in the late Miocene

Allison T. Karp, Anna K. Behrensmeyer, Katherine H. Freeman

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58 Scopus citations


That fire facilitated the late Miocene C4 grassland expansion is widely suspected but poorly documented. Fire potentially tied global climate to this profound biosphere transition by serving as a regional-to-local driver of vegetation change. In modern environments, seasonal extremes in moisture amplify the occurrence of fire, disturbing forest ecosystems to create niche space for flammable grasses, which in turn provide fuel for frequent fires. On the Indian subcontinent, C4 expansion was accompanied by increased seasonal extremes in rainfall (evidenced by δ18Ocarbonate), which set the stage for fuel accumulation and fire-linked clearance during wet-to-dry seasonal transitions. Here, we test the role of fire directly by examining the abundance and distribution patterns of fire-derived polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and terrestrial vegetation signatures in n-alkane carbon isotopes from paleosol samples of the Siwalik Group (Pakistan). Two million years before the C4 grassland transition, fire-derived PAH concentrations increased as conifer vegetation declined, as indicated by a decrease in retene. This early increase in molecular fire signatures suggests a transition to more fire-prone vegetation such as a C3 grassland and/or dry deciduous woodland. Between 8.0 and 6.0 million years ago, fire, precipitation seasonality, and C4-grass dominance increased simultaneously (within resolution) as marked by sharp increases in fire-derived PAHs, δ18Ocarbonate, and 13C enrichment in n-alkanes diagnostic of C4 grasses. The strong association of evidence for fire occurrence, vegetation change, and landscape opening indicates that a dynamic fire–grassland feedback system was both a necessary precondition and a driver for grassland ecology during the first emergence of C4 grasslands.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)12130-12135
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number48
StatePublished - Nov 27 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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