Research Article

Extinction at the end-Cretaceous and the origin of modern Neotropical rainforests

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Science  02 Apr 2021:
Vol. 372, Issue 6537, pp. 63-68
DOI: 10.1126/science.abf1969

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The birth of modern rainforests

The origin of modern rainforests can be traced to the aftermath of the bolide impact at the end of the Cretaceous. Carvalho et al. used fossilized pollen and leaves to characterize the changes that took place in northern South American forests at this time (see the Perspective by Jacobs and Currano). They not only found changes in species composition but were also able to infer changes in forest structure. Extinctions were widespread, especially among gymnosperms. Angiosperm taxa came to dominate the forests over the 6 million years of recovery, when the flora began to resemble that of modern lowland neotropical forest. The leaf data also imply that the forest canopy evolved from relatively open to closed and layered, leading to increased vertical stratification and a greater diversity of plant growth forms.

Science, this issue p. 63; see also p. 28

Abstract

The end-Cretaceous event was catastrophic for terrestrial communities worldwide, yet its long-lasting effect on tropical forests remains largely unknown. We quantified plant extinction and ecological change in tropical forests resulting from the end-Cretaceous event using fossil pollen (>50,000 occurrences) and leaves (>6000 specimens) from localities in Colombia. Late Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) rainforests were characterized by an open canopy and diverse plant–insect interactions. Plant diversity declined by 45% at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary and did not recover for ~6 million years. Paleocene forests resembled modern Neotropical rainforests, with a closed canopy and multistratal structure dominated by angiosperms. The end-Cretaceous event triggered a long interval of low plant diversity in the Neotropics and the evolutionary assembly of today’s most diverse terrestrial ecosystem.

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