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Palaeozoic landscapes shaped by plant evolution

Nature Geoscience volume 5, pages 99105 (2012) | Download Citation

Abstract

Fluvial landscapes diversified markedly over the 250 million years between the Cambrian and Pennsylvanian periods. The diversification occurred in tandem with the evolution of vascular plants and expanding vegetation cover. In the absence of widespread vegetation, landscapes during the Cambrian and Ordovican periods were dominated by rivers with wide sand-beds and aeolian tracts. During the late Silurian and Devonian periods, the appearance of vascular plants with root systems was associated with the development of channelled sand-bed rivers, meandering rivers and muddy floodplains. The widespread expansion of trees by the Early Pennsylvanian marks the appearance of narrow fixed channels, some representing anabranching systems, and braided rivers with vegetated islands. We conclude that the development of roots stabilized the banks of rivers and streams. The subsequent appearance of woody debris led to log jams that promoted the rapid formation of new river channels. Our contention is supported by studies of modern fluvial systems and laboratory experiments. In turn, fluvial styles influenced plant evolution as new ecological settings developed along the fluvial systems. We suggest that terrestrial plant and landscape evolution allowed colonization by an increasingly diverse array of organisms.

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Acknowledgements

We thank many colleagues for discussion and assistance, especially A. Bashforth, W. DiMichele, R. Dott, H. Falcon-Lang, R. Gastaldo, P. Gensel, M. Rygel, W. Stein and P. Perona. Funding was provided from a Discovery Grant to M.R.G. from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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    • Neil S. Davies

    Present address: Department of Geology and Soil Sciences, Krijgslaan 281, S8, University of Ghent, 9000 Ghent, Belgium

Affiliations

  1. Department of Earth Sciences, Dalhousie University, PO Box 15000, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada B3H 4R2

    • Martin R. Gibling
    •  & Neil S. Davies

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Contributions

M.R.G. and N.S.D. jointly conceived and undertook the study and fieldwork involved. Both authors contributed to the writing of the manuscript and figure construction.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Martin R. Gibling.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1376

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