Cenozoic plants from Tibet: An extraordinary decade of discovery, understanding and implications

Zhou, Zhekun; Liu, Jia; Chen, Linlin; Spicer, Robert A.; Li, Shufeng; Huang, Jian; Zhang, Shitao; Huang, Yongjiang; Jia, Linbo; Hu, Jinjin and Su, Tao (2022). Cenozoic plants from Tibet: An extraordinary decade of discovery, understanding and implications. Science China Earth Sciences (Early Access).

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11430-022-9980-9


Plant fossils play an important role in understanding landscape evolution across the Tibetan Region, as well as plant diversity across wider eastern Asia. Within the last decade or so, paleobotanical investigations within the Tibet Region have led to a paradigm shift in our understanding of how the present plateau formed and how this affected the regional climate and biota This is because: (1) Numerous new taxa have been reported. Of all the Cenozoic records of new plant fossil species reported from the Tibet (Xizang) Autonomous Region 45 out of 63 (70%) were documented after 2010. Among these, many represent the earliest records from Asia, or in some cases worldwide, at the genus or family level. (2) These fossils show that during the Paleogene, the region now occupied by the Tibetan Plateau was a globally significant floristic exchange hub. Based on paleobiogeographic studies, grounded by fossil evidence, there are four models of regional floristic migration and exchange, i.e., into Tibet, out of Tibet, out of India and into/out of Africa. (3) Plant fossils evidence the asynchronous formation histories for different parts of the Tibetan Plateau. During most of the Paleogene, there was a wide east-west trending valley with a subtropical climate in central Tibet bounded by high (>4 km) mountain systems, but that by the early Oligocene the modern high plateau had begun to form by the rise of the valley floor. Paleoelevation reconstructions using radiometrically-dated plant fossil assemblages in southeastern Tibet show that by the earliest Oligocene southeastern Tibet (including the Hengduan Mountains) had reached its present elevation. (4) The coevolution between vegetation, landform and paleoenvironment is evidenced by fossil records from what is now the central Tibetan Plateau. From the Paleocene to Pliocene, plant diversity transformed from that of tropical, to subtropical forests, through warm to cool temperate woodland and eventually to deciduous shrubland in response to landscape evolution from a seasonally humid lowland valley, to a high and dry plateau. (5) Advanced multidisciplinary technologies and novel ideas applied to paleobotanical material and paleoenvironmental reconstructions, e.g., fluorescence microscopy and paleoclimatic models, have been essential for interpreting Cenozoic floras on the Tibetan Region. However, despite significant progress investigating Cenozoic floras of the Tibetan Region, fossil records across this large region remain sparse, and for a better understanding of regional ecosystem dynamics and management more paleobotanical discoveries and multidisciplinary studies are required.

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