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Fires fueled spread of grasslands on ancient Earth

12/5/2018

Matthew James Carroll
November 28, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Ancient wildfires played a crucial role in the formation and spread of grasslands like those that now cover large parts of the Earth, according to scientists at Penn State and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

A new study links a large rise in wildfires nearly 10 million years ago, in the late Miocene, with a major shift in vegetation on land, as indicated by carbon isotopes of plant biomarkers found in the fossil record. Frequent, seasonal fires helped turn forested areas into open landscapes, and drove the expansion of grasslands, the researchers said.

The team developed an innovative approach to test the role of fire in the rise of early grasslands. They analyzed tracers of ancient leaves and of burned organic matter left behind in paleosols, or fossil soils, in northern Pakistan.   (more)

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