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Palaeozoic landscapes shaped by plant evolution


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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Figure 1: Palaeozoic events of fluvial and landscape development, in relation to plant evolution and atmospheric change.
Figure 2: Plants and fluvial systems in ancient and modern settings.
Figure 3: Palaeozoic diversification of fluvial style.
Figure 4: Experimental study of effects of vegetation on channels.


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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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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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Correspondence to Martin R. Gibling.

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Gibling, M., Davies, N. Palaeozoic landscapes shaped by plant evolution. Nature Geosci 5, 99–105 (2012).

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