Development of Vegetation and Climate in the Southwestern United States

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Science  18 May 1979:
Vol. 204, Issue 4394, pp. 701-710
DOI: 10.1126/science.204.4394.701


Plant macrofossils in ancient packrat middens document the presence of woodland communities in most of the present Chihuahuan, Sonoran, and Mohave deserts in the southwestern United States during the late Wisconsinan (22,000 to 11,000 years before present by radiocarbon dating). Warm desert species were common in the woodlands at lower elevations and mixed conifer and subalpine forests were present at high elevations. Inferred mild, wet winters and cool summers produced unusual plant and animal associations compared to those of today. Montane communities acquired modern aspects and more mesophytic species disappeared from lower woodlands about 11,000 years ago. Early Holocene xeric woodlands and an inferred winter precipitation regime persisted until about 8000 years ago. The present circulation patterns, rainfall regimes, and biotic distributions probably formed as a result of the melting of the continental ice sheets. Southwestern communities appear to have responded quickly to climatic changes compared to the gradual responses of central and eastern United States forest communities.