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African vegetation controlled by tropical sea surface temperatures in the mid-Pleistocene period


The dominant forcing factors for past large-scale changes in vegetation are widely debated. Changes in the distribution of C4 plants—adapted to warm, dry conditions and low atmospheric CO2 concentrations1—have been attributed to marked changes in environmental conditions, but the relative impacts of changes in aridity, temperature2,3 and CO2 concentration4,5 are not well understood. Here, we present a record of African C4 plant abundance between 1.2 and 0.45 million years ago, derived from compound-specific carbon isotope analyses of wind-transported terrigenous plant waxes. We find that large-scale changes in African vegetation are linked closely to sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Ocean. We conclude that, in the mid-Pleistocene, changes in atmospheric moisture content—driven by tropical sea surface temperature changes and the strength of the African monsoon—controlled aridity on the African continent, and hence large-scale vegetation changes.

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Figure 1: Modern distributions of plant wax concentrations and their vegetation signatures.
Figure 2: Present-day atmospheric circulation over Africa, vegetation zones and dust plumes.
Figure 3: Mid-Pleistocene changes of African vegetation, tropical Atlantic SST, eolian plant wax transport and global ice volume.


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We thank the Ocean Drilling Program for providing samples. The investigations were supported by the Research Council for Earth and Life Sciences with financial aid from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.

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Correspondence to Enno Schefuß.

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Schefuß, E., Schouten, S., Jansen, J. et al. African vegetation controlled by tropical sea surface temperatures in the mid-Pleistocene period. Nature 422, 418–421 (2003).

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