Influence of Late Holocene Climate Change and Human Land Use on Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecosystems in Southwest Madagascar

Alejandra I. Domic, Sean W. Hixon, Maria I. Velez, Sarah J. Ivory, Kristina G. Douglass, Mark Brenner, Jason H. Curtis, Brendan J. Culleton, Douglas J. Kennett

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8 Scopus citations


Madagascar’s biota underwent substantial change following human colonization of the island in the Late Holocene. The timing of human arrival and its role in the extinction of megafauna have received considerable attention. However, the impacts of human activities on regional ecosystems remain poorly studied. Here, we focus on reconstructing changes in the composition of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems to evaluate the impact of human land use and climate variability. We conducted a paleoenvironmental study, using a sediment record that spans the last ∼1,145 years, collected from a lakebed in the Namonte Basin of southwest Madagascar. We examined physical (X-ray fluorescence and stratigraphy) and biotic indicators (pollen, diatoms and micro- and macro-charcoal particles) to infer terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem change. The fossil pollen data indicate that composition of grasslands and dry deciduous forest in the region remained relatively stable during an arid event associated with northward displacement of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) between ∼1,145 and 555 calibrated calendar years before present (cal yr BP). Charcoal particles indicate that widespread fires occurred in the region, resulting from a combination of climate drivers and human agency during the entire span covered by the paleorecord. Following settlement by pastoral communities and the disappearance of endemic megafauna ∼1,000 cal yr BP, grasslands expanded and the abundance of trees that rely on large animals for seed dispersal gradually declined. A reduction in the abundance of pollen taxa characteristic of dry forest coincided with an abrupt increase in charcoal particles between ∼230 and 35 cal yr BP, when agro-pastoral communities immigrated into the region. Deforestation and soil erosion, indicated by a relatively rapid sedimentation rate and high K/Zr and Fe/Zr, intensified between 180 and 70 cal yr BP and caused a consequent increase in lake turbidity, resulting in more rapid turnover of the aquatic diatom community. Land use and ongoing climate change have continued to transform local terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems during the last ∼70 years. The current composition of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems reflects the legacy of extinction of native biota, invasion of exotic species, and diminished use of traditional land management practices.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number688512
JournalFrontiers in Ecology and Evolution
StatePublished - Dec 7 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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