Royal Society Publishing

South American palaeobotany and the origins of neotropical rainforests

Robyn J. Burnham, Kirk R. Johnson


Extant neotropical rainforest biomes are characterized by a high diversity and abundance of angiosperm trees and vines, high proportions of entire–margined leaves, high proportions of large leaves (larger than 4500 mm2), high abundance of drip tips and a suite of characteristic dominant families: Sapotaceae, Lauraceae, Leguminosae (Fabaceae), Melastomataceae and Palmae (Arecaceae). Our aim is to define parameters of extant rainforests that will allow their recognition in the fossil record of South America and to evaluate all known South American plant fossil assemblages for first evidence and continued presence of those parameters. We ask when did these critical rainforest characters arise? When did vegetative parameters reach the level of abundance that we see in neotropical forests? Also, when do specific lineages become common in neotropical forests?

Our review indicates that evidence of neotropical rainforest is exceedingly rare and equivocal before the Palaeocene. Even in the Palaeocene, the only evidence for tropical rainforest in South America is the appearance of moderately high pollen diversity. By contrast, North American sites provide evidence that rainforest leaf physiognomy was established early in the Palaeocene. By the Eocene in South America, several lines of evidence suggest that neotropical rainforests were diverse, physiognomically recognizable as rainforest and taxonomically allied to modern neotropical rainforests. A mismatch of evidence regarding the age of origin between sites of palaeobotanical high diversity and sites of predicted tropical climates should be reconciled with intensified collecting efforts in South America. We identify several lines of promising research that will help to coalesce previously disparate approaches to the origin, longevity and maintenance of high diversity floras of South America.