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  1. Landscapes are formed by long-term interactions between the underlying geology and climatic, edaphic and biotic factors, including human activity. The Kasitu Valley in the Mzimba District of northern Malawi includes the Kasitu River and its adjacent floodplains and uplands, and it has been a location of sustained human occupation since at least 16 thousand years ago (ka) based on archaeological excavations from rockshelters. We trace the changing ecology and geomorphology of the region through soil stable isotopes (δ13C, δ15N), microcharcoal and fossil pollen analysed from alluvial terraces dated by Optically Stimulated Luminescence, and wetland auger cores and archaeological sites dated by radiocarbon. Our results suggest that the region was primarily covered in mosaic forest at ca. 22.5 ka. Middle and Late Holocene samples (6.0–0.5 ka) show an increasingly open, herbaceous landscape over time with an inflection toward more abundant C4 vegetation after 2 ka. Significant upland erosion and terrace formation is also evidenced since 2 ka alongside high concentrations of microcharcoal, suggesting more intensive use of fire. Faecal biomarkers simultaneously indicate higher numbers of humans living adjacent to the archaeological site of Hora 1, which may be indicative of an overall population increase associated with the arrival of Iron Age agropastoralists. More recently, the introduction of exogenous commercial taxa such asPinussp. are correlated with regional afforestation in our proxy record. These results show increasing stepwise human impacts on the local environment, with deforestation and maintenance of open landscapes correlated with the regional introduction and intensification of agriculture during the Late Holocene.

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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available January 5, 2025
  2. Abstract

    We examine major reorganizations of the terrestrial ecosystem around Mono Lake, California during the last deglacial period from 16,000–9,000 cal yr BP using pollen, microcharcoal, and coprophilous fungal spores (Sporormiella) from a deep-water sediment core. The pollen results record the assemblage, decline, and replacement of a mixed wooded community of Sierran and Great Basin taxa with Alkali Sink and Sagebrush Steppe biomes around Mono Lake. In particular, the enigmatic presence ofSequoiadendron-type pollen and its extirpation during the early Holocene hint at substantial biogeographic reorganizations on the Sierran-Great Basin ecotone during deglaciation. Rapid regional hydroclimate changes produced structural alterations in pine–juniper woodlands facilitated by increases in wildfires at 14,800 cal yr BP, 13,900 cal yr BP, and 12,800 cal yr BP. The rapid canopy changes altered the availability of herbaceous understory plants, likely putting pressure on megafauna populations, which declined in a stepwise fashion at 15,000 cal yr BP and 12,700 cal yr BP before final extirpation from Mono Basin at 11,500 cal yr BP. However, wooded vegetation communities overall remained resistant to abrupt hydroclimate changes during the late Pleistocene; instead, they gradually declined and were replaced by Alkali Sink communities in the lowlands as temperature increased into the Early Holocene, and Mono Lake regressed.

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  3. The Late-Holocene history of hydroclimatic variability in the Atacama Desert offers insights into the effects of precipitation and humans on ecosystems in one of the most extremely arid regions of the world. However, understanding the effects of regional precipitation variability in relation to local ecological stressors remains to be fully resolved. Here, we present a pollen-based qualitative precipitation reconstruction derived from fossil rodent middens recovered from two sites near Laguna Roja (LRO; n = 25) and Isluga (ISL; n = 15) in the Atacama highlands (19°S) of northern Chile. At LRO, the fossil pollen record shows multi-centennial hydroclimatic anomalies during the last millennium, with wetter than present phases at 1155–1130, 865–670, and 215–80 cal yrs BP, and similar to present conditions between 1005 and 880 cal yrs BP. In contrast, the ISL record shows a wet phase during 1115–840 cal yrs BP, suggesting that meso-ecological processes were as important in vegetation turnover as regional hydroclimate anomalies. Wetter conditions derived from LRO partially overlap with the Medieval Climate Anomaly (865–670 cal yrs BP) and with the latest part of the Little Ice Age (215–80 cal yrs BP). Furthermore, no strong anthropogenic signal was identified possibly related to the remote location of the records. Palynological diversity analyses evidence increasing diversification of plant communities during wet events at both sites. In correlation to existing regional hydroclimatic records from the Western Andes, our precipitation reconstruction verifies that centennial-scale changes in the strength of the South American Summer Monsoon (SASM) and partial influence of El Niño-like (ENSO) conditions drove vegetation turnover in the Atacama Desert during the last millennium. 
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    The response of aquatic ecosystems in the Sierra Nevada (California, USA) to late Quaternary hydroclimate changes remains mostly unknown. Mono Lake, a large endorheic lake just east of the Sierra Nevada, contains an expanded archive of laminated sediments that can be used to examine the response of benthos to environmental changes. Fossil ostracodes from a radiocarbon‐dated core were used to examine paleoecologic changes from ~16.6 to 4.3k cal abp.Seven species were identified, with the co‐occurrence ofLimnocythere ceriotuberosaandLimnocythere stapliniindicating a large SO42−‐rich lake in the Pleistocene. The Younger Dryas was complex, withFabaeformiscandona caudatareflecting a cold and deep lake ~13.0–12.2k cal abp, followed by an interval of extensive littoral habitat from ~12.2–11.6k cal abp.Ostracode diversity, valves g–1and the ratio of adult:juvenile valves declined after ~10.7k cal abpdue to regression, altered hydrochemistry and seasonal anoxia. Strong seasonality during the Early Holocene is suggested by the presence of reworked ostracodes and macrocharcoal, delivered to Mono Lake by erosion of ancient lake beds in the basin. A depauperate ostracode fauna in the Middle Holocene suggests a strong sensitivity to drought in this ecosystem, which has implications for biodiversity in the future.

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    Modern Homo sapiens engage in substantial ecosystem modification, but it is difficult to detect the origins or early consequences of these behaviors. Archaeological, geochronological, geomorphological, and paleoenvironmental data from northern Malawi document a changing relationship between forager presence, ecosystem organization, and alluvial fan formation in the Late Pleistocene. Dense concentrations of Middle Stone Age artifacts and alluvial fan systems formed after ca. 92 thousand years ago, within a paleoecological context with no analog in the preceding half-million-year record. Archaeological data and principal coordinates analysis indicate that early anthropogenic fire relaxed seasonal constraints on ignitions, influencing vegetation composition and erosion. This operated in tandem with climate-driven changes in precipitation to culminate in an ecological transition to an early, pre-agricultural anthropogenic landscape. 
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  7. Aim

    The climate tolerances of many species are broader than those estimated from current native ranges. Indeed, the niches of some Afromontane trees are up to 50% larger after incorporation of fossil data. This expansion could reduce estimates of species' future range loss owing to climate change but also implies strong non‐climatic limitations on species' current ranges. One such limitation is land use, which fossil data suggest influences Afromontane tree distribution, preventing these trees from occupying warmer conditions than they do currently. We aimed to assess the degree to which the broader climatic tolerances revealed by fossil data buffer projected range loss from climate and land use for Afromontane trees.



    Time period

    Last 21,000 years.

    Major taxa studied

    Afromontane trees.


    We used species distribution models informed by both current and fossil distributions to project future ranges under climate and land‐use projections.


    We found that projected range reductions are only slightly ameliorated by incorporation of fossil distributions, and these improvements diminish further under severe land‐use or climate change scenarios. Taxa that are less impacted by climate are more impacted by intense land use. Depending on the severity of climate and land use, the geographical extent of Afromontane tree species' ranges will contract by 40–85%, and the trees will be completely lost from large portions of Africa. We projected that the surviving species' ranges will become increasingly fragmented.

    Main conclusions

    Maintaining Afromontane ecosystems will require mitigation of both climate and land‐use change and protection of areas to optimize connectivity. Our findings caution that species with climate tolerances broader than their current range might not necessarily fare better under strong changes in climate or land use.

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