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Holocene vegetation change and the mammal faunas of South America and Africa

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Abstract Aim 

Although sharing many similarities in their vegetation types, South America and Africa harbour very dissimilar recent mammal faunas, not only taxonomically but also in terms of several faunistic patterns. However late Pleistocene and mid-Holocene faunas, albeit taxonomically distinct, presented many convergent attributes. Here we propose that the effects of the Holocene climatic change on vegetation physiognomy has played a crucial role in shaping the extant mammalian faunistic patterns. Location 

South America and Africa from the late Pleistocene to the present. Methods 

Data presented here have been compiled from many distinct sources, including palaeontological and neontological mammalian studies, palaeoclimatology, palynology, and publications on vegetation ecology. Data on Pleistocene, Holocene and extant mammal faunas of South America and Africa allowed us to establish a number of similar and dissimilar faunistic patterns between the two continents across time. We then considered what changes in vegetation physiognomy would have occurred under the late Pleistocene last glacial maximum (LGM) and the Holocene climatic optimum (HCO) climatic regimes. We have ordained these proposed vegetation changes along rough physiognomic seral stages according to assumptions based on current botanical research. Finally, we have associated our hypothesized vegetation changes in South America and Africa with mammalian faunistic patterns, establishing a putative causal relationship between them. Results 

The extant mammal faunas of South America and Africa differ widely in taxonomical composition; the number of medium and large species they possess; behavioural and ecological characteristics related to herbivore herding, migration and predation; and biogeographical patterns. All such distinctions are mostly related to the open formation faunas, and have been completely established around the mid-Holocene. Considering that the mid-Holocene was a time of greater humidity than the late Pleistocene, vegetation cover in South America and Africa would have been dominated by forest or closed vegetation landscapes, at least for most of their lower altitude tropical regions. We attribute the loss of larger-sized mammal lineages in South America to the decrease of open vegetation area, and their survival in Africa to the existence of vast savannas in formerly steppic or desertic areas in subtropical Africa, north and south of the equator. Alternative explanations, mostly dealing with the disappearance of South American megamammals, are then reviewed and criticized. Main conclusions 

The reduction of open formation areas during the HCO in South America and Africa explains most of the present distinct faunistic patterns between the two continents. While South America would have lost most of its open formations within the 30° latitudinal belt, Africa would have kept large areas suitable to the open formation mammalian fauna in areas presently occupied by desert and semi-arid vegetation. Thus, the same general climatic events that affected South America in the late Pleistocene and Holocene also affected Africa, leading to our present day faunistic dissimilarities by maintaining the African mammalian communities almost unchanged while dramatically altering those of South America.

Keywords: Africa; HCO; LGM; Mammals; South America; vegetation change

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2004-06-01

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