Expansion of C4 grasses in the Late Miocene of Northern Pakistan: evidence from stable isotopes in paleosols

Jay Quade, Thure E. Cerling

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Stable-isotopic, clay-mineralogic, and bulk-chemical analyses were conducted on paleosols of the Neogene Siwalik sections in northern Pakistan in order to reconstruct floodplain environments over the past ∼ 17 Ma. The stable carbon isotopic composition of soil carbonate (mean δ13C (PDB) = -10.2%) and associated organic matter (mean δ13C (PDB) = -24.1%) in paleosols representing 17- ∼ 7.3 Ma reveal that floodplain vegetation was dominated by C3 plants. At 7.3 Ma, a shift toward more positive carbon isotopic values began, signaling the gradual expansion of C4 grasses onto the floodplain. From 6 Ma to present, carbon isotopic values for paleosol carbonate (mean δ13C (PDB) = +0.6%) and organic matter (mean δ13C (PDB) = -14.4%) are uniformly enriched in 13C, indicating the presence of nearly pure C4 grassland. The scarcity of kaolinite and abundance of smectite and pedogenic carbonate in most paleosols suggest that rainfall in the region remained 1.0-1.25 m/yr or less for the entire 17 Ma of record. Paleosols in the lower portion of the section lack organic A horizons but have reddish B horizons often containing secondary iron-oxide nodules. Leaching depths of soil carbonate in these older paleosols are typically greater than those in the Plio-Pleistocene part of the section, where organic A horizons are common, and B horizons are markedly more yellow. The combined evidence suggests that the mature paleosols in the pre-7.3 Ma part of the record are dominantly calcareous Alfisols or Mollisols that once underlay nearly pure C3 vegetation, perhaps trees and shrubs, while calcareous Mollisols underlying C4 grassland dominate the upper part of the record. The carbon- and oxygen-isotopic trends in the paleosol record in Pakistan are also evident in the diet of fossil mammals, and in paleosols from Nepal, thus demonstrating that these paleoenvironmental changes in floodplain vegetation may be continent-wide. Local effects, such as the development or intensification of the Asian Monsoon driven by uplift of the Tibetan Plateau, may have led to the expansion of C4 grasses. If, however, the expansion of C4 grasses proves globally synchronous, then a larger scale cause, such as a marked decrease in ρ{variant}CO2, may be the driving mechanism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)91-116
Number of pages26
JournalPalaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - May 1995

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Palaeontology


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