Cerling conducted the study with biologists Samuel Andanje and David Kimutai Korir of the Kenya Wildlife Service; geologist Michael Bird of James Cook University, Cairns, Australia; University of Utah graduate students William Mace of geology, Anthony Macharia of geography and Christopher Remien of mathematics; and former Utah geology graduate students Jonathan Wynn of the University of South Florida, Naomi Levin of Johns Hopkins University and Jay Quade of the University of Arizona.
The National Science Foundation and the Leakey Foundation funded the study.
Deducing Prehistoric Tree Cover from Soil Isotopes
The new method was developed by correlating carbon isotope ratios in 3,000 modern soil samples with satellite photos of tree and vegetation cover at 75 tropical sites worldwide half in Africa representing everything from closed forest to open grassland. That allowed scientists to determine the percent of tree and woody shrub cover millions of years ago based on carbon isotope ratios in fossil soils known as paleosols.
"This study is based on the geological axiom that the present is the key to the past," says Cerling. "We assume soils in the past had similar relationships to vegetation as what we observe today."
The researchers collected soil samples at Kenyan and Ethiopian sites and used published data on soil samples collected by others during the past decade at the other sites throughout the tropics. Modern soil samples came from national parks and reserves and non-agricultural areas so that carbon isotope rations reflected natural vegetation.
The ratio of rare carbon-13 to common carbon-12 in decayed plant material in soils reveals the extent to which the landscape was covered by plants that use what is known as the C3 pathway of photosynthesis versus plants that use C4 photosynthesis.
Trees, shrubs, herbs, forbs and cool-seas
|Contact: Lee Siegel|
University of Utah