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Abstract Aim To reconstruct the history of vegetation and environments using pollen, charcoal and sediment analysis, and to identify the timing and nature of climate change and human impact on the vegetation of a remote Pacific island. Location Cerro de Los Inocentes, 1000 m above sea level, Alexander Selkirk Island (33°45′S, 80°45′W), Chile. The westernmost island of the Juan Fernandez Archipelago, south-east Pacific Ocean. Methods A 150-cm long sediment core comprising 87 cm dark brown peat overlying 63 cm of yellow grey clay was extracted from a shallow depression on the southern slopes of Cerro de Los Inocentes. Pollen, charcoal, sediment and accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon analyses were used to construct a record of vegetation change through time. Numerical analysis of multispecies data allowed the classification of fossil assemblages into distinct pollen zones. Results Pollen and spores are preserved throughout the sediment with high concentrations coinciding with the beginning of organic sediment accumulation at around 8000 14C yr BP. Prior to 8000 14C yr BP, the deposition of clays, presumably from upslope erosion, occurred in a landscape sparsely vegetated by grasses, ferns and Pernettya rigida heath, including several plants that are only found 100–200 m above the site today (Zone CI-1). After 8000 14C yr BP, a P. rigida heath was the dominant vegetation (Zone CI-2). A shift to a wet heath–shrubland (Zone CI-3) occurred at 6000 14C yr BP and was followed by a transition to a treefern–shrubland mosaic accompanied by periodic burning (Zone CI-4) after 4500 14C yr BP. The impact of human occupation is evident in Zone CI-5 at 450 14C yr BP with the loss of forest species, increased burning and invasion of the exotic plant Rumex. Main conclusions The pollen and charcoal record provides the first evidence of vegetation changes spanning at least the last 8000 14C yr BP from the high altitude environment of Alexander Selkirk Island. Prior to 8000 14C yr BP, the altitudinal ranges of different plant species may have been suppressed by a cooler and drier climate. Increasing precipitation and temperatures at the end of the last glacial period may have mobilized exposed sediments in a sparsely vegetated upland environment, altering local drainage patterns, eventually leading to slope stabilization and deposition of organic detritus under an increasing density of heath and shrub vegetation. The subalpine heath–shrubland persisted until 4500 14C yr BP when first evidence for sustained burning is found in association with the establishment of a more open treefern–shrubland vegetation pattern. In the absence of human occupation at this time, the influence of increased climatic variability associated with more frequent El Niño-Southern Oscillation events during the mid to late Holocene is considered one of the main driving forces behind increased vegetation disturbance during this period. The record provides evidence that island vegetation patterns have been highly dynamic over millennial to decadal time-scales and that the flora has persisted through periods of rapid and major climate change. This changed with the discovery of the island by European explorers in the late sixteenth century and the subsequent introduction of goats and exploitation and burning of forests, which resulted in the progressive destruction of native vegetation and the invasion of introduced plants. There is evidence that reduced burning and control of the goat population within the last 50 years has resulted in marginal recovery of some high altitude native plant species.