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Post-Hypsithermal plant disjunctions in western Alberta, Canada

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Abstract Aim 

Evaluate the hypothesis that nine disjunct vascular plant species along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains and in the Peace River District of west-central Alberta represent remnants of more southerly vegetation that occupied these areas during the Holocene Hypsithermal (9000–6000 yr bp). Alternatively, these plants represent populations that became established because of independent chance dispersal events. Location 

This study focuses on the area east of the Rocky Mountain Continental Divide in the Province of Alberta and the State of Montana in western Canada and USA, respectively. Methods 

Disjunct species were identified and their distributions mapped based on a review of occurrence maps and records, botanical floras and checklists, herbaria specimens, ecological and botanical studies, and field surveys of selected species. A disjunct species was defined as a plant population separated from its next nearest occurrence by a distance of > 300 km. Evaluation of the hypothesis was based on a review of published and unpublished pollen stratigraphy and palaeoecological studies. The potential geographical distribution of Hypsithermal vegetation was based on modern regional-based ecosystem mapping and associated monthly temperature summaries as well as future climatic warming models. Results 

The hypothesis was compatible with Holocene pollen stratigraphy, Hypsithermal permafrost and fen occurrence, and palaeosol phytolith analyses; and future global climatic warming models. Modelled regional Hypsithermal vegetation based on a 1 °C increase in July temperatures relative to current conditions, indicated that much of the boreal forest zone in Alberta could have been grassland, which would explain the occurrence of Prairie species in the Peace River District. This amount of latitudinal vegetation shift (6.5°) was similar to an earlier Hypsithermal permafrost zone location study. An equivalent shift in vegetation along the eastern Cordillera would have placed south-western Montana-like vegetation and species such as Boykinia heucheriformis (Rydb.) Rosend. and Saxifraga odontoloma Piper within the northern half of the Rocky Mountains and foothills in Alberta, which represents the location of modern-day disjunct populations of these species. Main conclusions 

Warmer and drier climatic conditions during the Holocene Hypsithermal resulted in the northward displacement of vegetation zones relative to their current distribution patterns. Most of Alberta was probably dominated by grasslands during this period, except the Rocky Mountains and northern highlands. Modern-day species disjunctions within the Rocky Mountains and Peace River District as well as more northerly areas such as the Yukon Territory occurred when the vegetation receded southward in response to climatic cooling after the Hypsithermal. Wind dispersal was considered an unlikely possibility to explain the occurrence of the disjunct species, as most of the plants lack morphological adaptations for long distance transport and the prevailing winds were from west to east rather than south to north. However, consumption and transport of seeds by northward migrating birds could not be excluded as a possibility.
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Keywords: Holocene palaeoclimate; climate change; disjunct species; palaeoecology; palaeovegetation; rare plants

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Publication date: 2003-03-01

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