Research ArticlePALEOECOLOGY

Climate, CO2, and the history of North American grasses since the Last Glacial Maximum

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Science Advances  25 Mar 2016:
Vol. 2, no. 3, e1501346
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1501346


The spread of C4 grasses in the late Neogene is one of the most important ecological transitions of the Cenozoic, but the primary driver of this global expansion is widely debated. We use the stable carbon isotopic composition (δ13C) of bison and mammoth tissues as a proxy for the relative abundance of C3 and C4 vegetation in their grazing habitat to determine climatic and atmospheric CO2 controls on C4 grass distributions from the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) to the present. We predict the spatial variability of grass δ13C in North America using a mean of three different methods of classification and regression tree (CART) machine learning techniques and nine climatic variables. We show that growing season precipitation and temperature are the strongest predictors of all single climate variables. We apply this CART analysis to high-resolution gridded climate data and Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5) mean paleoclimate model outputs to produce predictive isotope landscape models (“isoscapes”) for the current, mid-Holocene, and LGM average δ13C of grass-dominated areas across North America. From the LGM to the present, C4 grass abundances substantially increased in the Great Plains despite concurrent increases in atmospheric CO2. These results suggest that changes in growing season precipitation rather than atmospheric CO2 were critically important in the Neogene expansion of C4 grasses.

  • stable isotopes
  • last glacial maximum
  • C4 grasses
  • paleoecology
  • bison
  • mammuthus

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.

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