A fossil of a giant tree has been discovered in the Peruvian Altiplano by a group of researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The tree could be at least 10 million years old and its discovery could reveal how the climate has evolved and what the future holds.
According to the studies carried out on this fossil, the tree died in the middle of the Neogene period, indicating that the climate of the region was much more humid than previously thought.
“This tree and the hundreds of fossil wood, leaf and pollen samples we collected on the expedition, reveal that when these plants were alive the ecosystem was more humid–even more humid than climate models of the past predicted,” said the paleobotanist Camila Martinez, from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama.
Since then, however, the climate has changed considerably. rom humid and biodiverse it became arid, this is partly because it also suffered a change in altitude.
“There is probably no comparable modern ecosystem, because temperatures were higher when these fossils were deposited 10 million years ago,” Martinez stressed.
One of the most relevant discoveries that the study of this fossil has led is to understand the speed with which the vegetation and altitude changed in this region. Over a period of five million years, the change took place, according to fossils of recovered plants that are only five million years old.
These fossils reveal that they had an ecosystem similar to today, rather than one that might have supported the growth of huge trees. It is a violent change if you look at the processes of Earth’s history. This process could have been caused by movements in the Earth’s lithosphere below South America for many millions of years.
“The fossil record in the region tells us two things: both the altitude and the vegetation changed dramatically over a relatively short period of time, supporting a hypothesis that suggests the tectonic uplift of this region occurred in rapid pulses,” said STRI paleobotanist Carlos Jaramillo.
However, one of the objectives of studying the evolution of the climate is to be able to predict how it will change in the future in this region and what consequences it will have for vegetation.
“By the end of this century, changes in temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations will again approximate the conditions 10 million years ago,” Martinez said.
“Understanding the discrepancies between climate models and data based on the fossil record help us to elucidate the driving forces controlling the current climate of the Altiplano, and, ultimately, the climate across the South American continent,” concluded the researcher.