Late-Quaternary variation in C3 and C4 grass abundance in southeastern Australia as inferred from δ13C analysis: assessing the roles of climate, pCO2, and fire

David M. Nelson, Michael A. Urban, A. Peter Kershaw, Feng Sheng Hu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Climate, atmospheric pCO2, and fire all may exert major influences on the relative abundance of C3 and C4 grasses in the present-day vegetation. However, the relative role of these factors in driving variation in C3 and C4 grass abundances in the paleorecord is uncertain, and C4 abundance is often interpreted narrowly as a proxy indicator of aridity or pCO2. We measured δ13C values of individual grains of grass (Poaceae) pollen in the sediments of two sites in southeastern Australia to assess changes in the proportions of C3 and C4 grasses during the past 25,000 years. These data were compared with shifts in pCO2, temperature, moisture balance, and fire to assess how these factors were related to long-term variation of C4 grass abundance during the late Quaternary. At Caledonia Fen, a high-elevation site in the Snowy Mountains, C4 grass abundance decreased from an average of 66% during the glacial period to 11% during the Holocene, primarily in response to increased pCO2 and temperature. In contrast, this pattern did not exist in low-elevation savannah woodlands around Tower Hill Northwest Crater, where C4 grass abundance instead varied in response to shifts in regional aridity. Fire did not appear to have strongly influenced the proportions of C3 and C4 grasses on the landscape at millennial timescales at either site. These patterns are similar to those of a recent study in East Africa, suggesting that elevation-related climatic differences influence how the abundance of C3 and C4 grasses responds to shifts in climate and pCO2. These results caution against using C4 plant abundance as a proxy indicator of either climate or pCO2 without an adequate understanding of key controlling factors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)67-76
Number of pages10
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Volume139
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2016

Keywords

  • Atmospheric CO2
  • Australia
  • C3 grasses
  • C4 grasses
  • Carbon isotopes
  • Climate change
  • Fire

Cite this