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Denk, Thomas; Zohner, Constantin M.; Grimm, Guido W. and Renner, Susanne S. (2018): Plant fossils reveal major biomes occupied by the late Miocene Old-World Pikermian fauna. In: Nature Ecology & Evolution, Vol. 2, No. 12: pp. 1864-1870

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Reconstruction of palaeobiomes, ancient communities that exhibit a physiognomic and functional structure controlled by their environment, depends on proxies from different disciplines. Based on terrestrial mammal fossils, the late Miocene vegetation from China to the eastern Mediterranean and East Africa has been reconstructed as a single cohesive biome with increasingly arid conditions, with modern African savannahs the surviving remnant. Here, we test this reconstruction using plant fossils spanning 14-4 million years ago from sites in Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, the Tian Shan Mountains and Baode County in China, and East Africa. The western Eurasian sites had a continuous forest cover of deciduous or evergreen angiosperms and gymnosperms, with 15% of 1,602 fossil occurrences representing conifers, which were present at all but one of the sites. Raup-Crick analyses reveal high floristic similarity between coeval eastern Mediterranean and Chinese sites, and low similarity between Eurasian and African sites. The disagreement between plant-based reconstructions, which imply that late Miocene western Eurasia was covered by evergreen needleleaf forests and mixed forests, and mammal-based reconstructions, which imply a savannah biome, throws into doubt the approach of inferring Miocene precipitation and open savannah habitats solely from mammalian dental traits. Organismal communities are constantly changing in their species composition, and neither animal nor plant traits by themselves are sufficient to infer entire ancient biomes. The plant fossil record, however, unambiguously rejects the existence of a cohesive savannah biome from eastern Asia to northeast Africa.

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