Plant communities are largely reshaped by climate and the environment over millennia, providing a powerful tool for understanding their response to future climates. Using a globally applicable functional palaeocological approach, we provide a deeper understanding of fossil pollen-inferred long-term response of vegetation to past climatic disturbances based on changes in functional trait composition. Specifically, we show how and why the ecological strategies exhibited by vegetation have changed through time by linking observations of plant traits to multiple pollen records from southeast Australia to reconstruct past functional diversity (FD, the value and the range of species traits that influence ecosystem functioning). The drivers of FD changes were assessed quantitatively by comparing FD reconstructions to independent records of past climates. During the last 12,000 years, peaks in FD were associated with both dry and wet climates in southeast Australia, with shifts in leaf traits particularly pronounced under wet conditions. Continentality determined the degree of stability maintained by high FD, with the greatest seen on the mainland. We expect projected frequent drier conditions in southeast Australia over coming decades to drive changes in vegetation community functioning and productivity mirroring the functional palaeocological record, particularly in western Tasmania and western southeast mainland.
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The pollen records supporting this study are either available in, or in the process of being uploaded to, the Neotoma Paleoecology Database (https://www.neotomadb.org/). For those data in the process of upload, individual restrictions prohibit their accession to any other repository but in the meantime they are available on request to A.H. (firstname.lastname@example.org). Details of pollen records are provided in Supplementary Table 1. Plant trait data are provided in Supplementary Tables 2 and 3 and are also publicly available through the AusTraits database at https://austraits.org/.
All R codes are provided in Section C of the Supplementary Information.
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We acknowledge the work of the data contributors to this study and pay our respect to the Indigenous peoples of SE Australia in whose land this study was conducted. We also want to use this opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of late Emeritus Professor G. Hope (The Australian National University) in initiating the archiving of Australian pollen records for public use from the 1990s. M.A.A., S.G.H. and A.H. acknowledge funding from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage support grant (CE170100015).
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Extended Data Fig. 1 (FD) and trait composition reconstructions for the SE Australian mainland subregions.
FD and trait composition changes in eastern and western SE Australia’s vegetation compared with previously proposed early to mid- Holocene Southern Westerly-driven wet-dry antiphasing44. Standard errors are in grey. Also indicated is the potential persistence of the climatic signal during the generally drier late Holocene.
Extended Data Fig. 2 Pre- and post-colonial and trait composition reconstructions for SE Australia’s vegetation.
and trait composition changes in SE Australia’s vegetation showing a continued trend into the period of European colonization after ~200 cal yr BP (dashed lines).
Autocorrelation check output using the ‘acf’ function. Bars are inside the dotted lines, which means no autocorrelation detected. See Section C of supplementary material for autocorrelation check using the generalized least square method.
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Adeleye, M.A., Haberle, S.G., Gallagher, R. et al. Changing plant functional diversity over the last 12,000 years provides perspectives for tracking future changes in vegetation communities. Nat Ecol Evol 7, 224–235 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-022-01943-4