A Middle Eocene lowland humid subtropical “Shangri-La” ecosystem in central Tibet

Su, Tao; Spicer, Robert A.; Wu, Fei-Xiang; Farnsworth, Alexander; Huang, Jian; Del Rio, Cédric; Deng, Tao; Ding, Lin; Deng, Wei-Yu-Dong; Huang, Yong-Jiang; Hughes, Alice; Jia, Lin-Bo; Jin, Jian-Hua; Li, Shu-Feng; Liang, Shui-Qing; Liu, Jia; Liu, Xiao-Yan; Sherlock, Sarah; Spicer, Teresa; Srivastava, Gaurav; Tang, He; Valdes, Paul; Wang, Teng-Xiang; Widdowson, Mike; Wu, Meng-Xiao; Xing, Yao-Wu; Xu, Cong-Li; Yang, Jian; Zhang, Cong; Zhang, Shi-Tao; Zhang, Xin-Wen; Zhao, Fan and Zhou, Zhe-Kun (2020). A Middle Eocene lowland humid subtropical “Shangri-La” ecosystem in central Tibet. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(52) pp. 32989–32995.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2012647117


Tibet’s ancient topography and its role in climatic and biotic evo- lution remain speculative due to a paucity of quantitative surface- height measurements through time and space, and sparse fossil records. However, newly discovered fossils from a present eleva- tion of ∼4,850 m in central Tibet improve substantially our knowl- edge of the ancient Tibetan environment. The 70 plant fossil taxa so far recovered include the first occurrences of several modern Asian lineages and represent a Middle Eocene (∼47 Mya) humid subtropical ecosystem. The fossils not only record the diverse com- position of the ancient Tibetan biota, but also allow us to constrain the Middle Eocene land surface height in central Tibet to ∼1,500 ± 900 m, and quantify the prevailing thermal and hydrological re- gime. This “Shangri-La”–like ecosystem experienced monsoon sea- sonality with a mean annual temperature of ∼19 °C, and frosts were rare. It contained few Gondwanan taxa, yet was composi- tionally similar to contemporaneous floras in both North America and Europe. Our discovery quantifies a key part of Tibetan Paleo- gene topography and climate, and highlights the importance of Tibet in regard to the origin of modern Asian plant species and the evolution of global biodiversity.

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