Spatiotemporal Variation in the Environmental Controls of C4-Grass Origin and Ecology: Insights from Grass-Pollen δ13C Data

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 3:10 PM
David M Nelson1, Michael Urban2 and Fengsheng Hu2,3, (1)Appalachian Laboratory, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Frostburg, MD, United States, (2)University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Program in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology, Urbana, IL, United States, (3)University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Plant Biology, Geology, Urbana, IL, United States
Understanding the environmental factors controlling the origin and shifting abundance of C4 grasses in Earth’s history is useful for projecting the response of C4-grass dominated grasslands to future environmental change. Unfortunately, grass pollen is typically morphologically indistinct, making palynological analysis a blunt tool for studying C4-grasses in the paleorecord. δ13C of individual grass-pollen grains using a spooling wire microcombustion device interfaced with an isotope ratio mass spectrometer (Single Pollen Isotope Ratio AnaLysis, SPIRAL) overcomes this challenge and the potential biases of δ13C data from other substrates (e.g. leaf waxes). To assess the presence and relative abundance of C3- and C4-grass pollen in samples of unknown composition, we developed a hierarchical Bayesian model, trained with ~1,900 δ13C values from pollen grains of 31 grass species. Surface-sediment data from Africa, Australia, and North America demonstrate the reliability of this technique for quantifying C4-grass abundance on the landscape. To investigate the timing and control of the origin of C4-grasses we analyzed samples from the Oligocene-Miocene from Europe and from the Eocene from North America. Results indicate that C4 grasses appeared on the landscape of southwest Europe no later than the early Oligocene, implying that low atmospheric pCO2 may not have been the main driver and/or precondition for the development of C4 photosynthesis in the grass family. In contrast, we found no evidence for C4 grasses in the southeast United States before pCO2 fell. In application of SPIRAL to the late Quaternary, we found that shifts in pCO2 and moisture balance exerted key controls on the relative abundance of C3 and C4 grasses in Africa and Australia. Overall, our results imply that as in the past, future changes in the C3/C4 composition of grass-dominated ecosystems will likely exhibit striking spatiotemporal variability as a result of differing combinations of environmental controls.