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Plant fossils reveal major biomes occupied by the late Miocene Old-World Pikermian fauna

Abstract

Reconstruction of palaeobiomes, ancient communities that exhibit a physiognomic and functional structure controlled by their environment, depends on proxies from different disciplines. Based on terrestrial mammal fossils, the late Miocene vegetation from China to the eastern Mediterranean and East Africa has been reconstructed as a single cohesive biome with increasingly arid conditions, with modern African savannahs the surviving remnant. Here, we test this reconstruction using plant fossils spanning 14–4 million years ago from sites in Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, the Tian Shan Mountains and Baode County in China, and East Africa. The western Eurasian sites had a continuous forest cover of deciduous or evergreen angiosperms and gymnosperms, with 15% of 1,602 fossil occurrences representing conifers, which were present at all but one of the sites. Raup–Crick analyses reveal high floristic similarity between coeval eastern Mediterranean and Chinese sites, and low similarity between Eurasian and African sites. The disagreement between plant-based reconstructions, which imply that late Miocene western Eurasia was covered by evergreen needleleaf forests and mixed forests, and mammal-based reconstructions, which imply a savannah biome, throws into doubt the approach of inferring Miocene precipitation and open savannah habitats solely from mammalian dental traits. Organismal communities are constantly changing in their species composition, and neither animal nor plant traits by themselves are sufficient to infer entire ancient biomes. The plant fossil record, however, unambiguously rejects the existence of a cohesive savannah biome from eastern Asia to northeast Africa.

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The authors declare that all data supporting the findings of this study are available in the supplementary tables.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by a Swedish Research Council grant to T.D. and an Austrian Science Fund Grant M 1751 (to G.W.G.). We thank F. Kaya for discussion of his Raup–Crick analyses and the shortcomings of different proxies for inferring past biomes.

Author information

T.D. designed the initial study and performed analyses. C.M.Z. performed Raup–Crick analyses. G.W.G. performed Köppen climate analyses and designed most figures. S.S.R. provided conceptual input and wrote the first draft. All authors co-wrote the final paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Thomas Denk.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Table 1

Western Eurasian plant fossil localities considered for this study. Location, type of floral assemblage (macrofossil, leaf; macrofossil, fruit; seed; microfossil, pollen and spores), Neogene mammal zone, age inference and full references.

Supplementary Table 2

Taxon lists and vegetation unit scoring for the Western Eurasian plant localities associated with mammal faunas in Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. Also included are phytolith counts from Strömberg et al. (2007) as shown in Supplementary Fig. 2.

Supplementary Table 3

Taxon lists (genus, family levels) of plant assemblages from western Eurasia, Northeast Asia and East Africa spanning MN7+8–MN14 used for calculating Raup–Crick similarity indices.

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Fig. 1: Vegetation and landscapes inhabited by the Pikermian fauna from Greece to Anatolia.
Fig. 2: Raup–Crick genus-level floristic similarity12,13 to Pikermi for different time periods.
Fig. 3: Raup–Crick similarities12,13 over time between Europe and East Asia, Europe and Africa, and East Asia and Africa computed on the fossil dataset, using reference sites from the same time periods (14–10 Ma, 9–6 Ma, 5–4 Ma).