The palynological record and the extinction events.

The main palynological provinces at the end of the Cretaceous (From Vajda and Bercovici, 2014)

The main palynological provinces at the end of the Cretaceous (From Vajda and Bercovici, 2014)

Pollen and other palynomorphs proved to be an extraordinary tool to palaeoenvironmental reconstruction. In 1921, Gunnar Erdtman, a Swedish botanist, was the first to suggest this application for fossil pollen study. Like spores, pollen grains reflects the ecology of their parent plants and their habitats and provide a continuous record of their evolutionary history. Pollen analysis involves the quantitative examination of spores and pollen at successive horizons through a core, specially in lake, marsh or delta sediments. The morphology of pollen grains is diverse. Gymnosperm pollen often is saccate (grains with two or three air sacs attached to the central body), while Angiosperm pollen shows more variation and covers a multitude of combinations of features: they could be  in groups of four (tetrads),  in pairs (dyads),  or single (monads). The individual grains can be inaperturate, or have one or more pores, or slit-like apertures or colpi (monocolpate, tricolpate).

Since the 1980s, many fossil pollen data sets were developed specifically to reconstruct past climate change.

Aquilapollenites quadricretaeus and Nothofagidites kaitangata

Aquilapollenites quadricretaeus and Nothofagidites kaitangata


The palynological record across the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) boundary  is a unique global  marker that can be use as template to asses the causal mechanism behind other major extinction events in Earths history. Four major palynological provinces have been recognized based on distinctive angiosperm pollen and fern spores of restricted geographic and stratigraphic distribution. The Aquilapollenites Province had a northern circumpolar distribution that extended from Siberia, northern China, Japon and the western North America. The Normapolles Province occupied eastern North America,  Europe and western Asia. The Palmae Province occupied equatorial regions in the Late Cretacic and included SouthAmerica, Africa and India. Finally, the Notofagidites Province that extended across southern South America, Antartica, New Zeland and Australia.

During the Late Cretaceous the global climate change has been associated with episodes of outgassing from major volcanic events, orbital cyclicity and tectonism before ending with the cataclysm caused by a large bolide impact at Chicxulub, on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Although, during the middle Maastrichtian, there was a short-lived warming event related to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide from the first Deccan eruption phase, the global climate cooled during the latest Maastrichtian and across the K–Pg boundary (Wang et al., 2014; Brusatte et al., 2014). The variations in floral composition reflect these paleoclimatic changes.

Fern spike adapted from Bercovicci

Fern spike adapted from Bercovicci

Mainly angiosperms, disappear at the boundary, as evidenced the palynofloral records of North America and New Zealand. Patagonia shows a reduction in diversity and relative abundance in almost all plant groups from the latest Maastrichtian to the Danian, although only a few true extinctions occurred (Barreda et al, 2013).  The nature of vegetational change in the south polar region suggests that terrestrial ecosystems were already responding to relatively rapid climate change prior to the K–Pg catastrophe.

The earliest Paleocene vegetation shows an anomalous concentration of fern spores just above the level of palynological extinction. R. H. Tschudy, in 1984,  was the first to recognize this very distinctive pattern when he analyzed samples from the K/PG boundary and observed that just after the extinction event, the palynological assemblages were dominated by a high abundance of fern spores.

Schematic illustration comparing the three extinction events analized (From Vajda and Bercovici, 2014)

Schematic illustration comparing the three extinction events analized (From Vajda and Bercovici, 2014)

During the end-Permian Event, the woody gymnosperm vegetation (cordaitaleans and glossopterids) were replaced by spore-producing plants (mainly lycophytes) before the typical Mesozoic woody vegetation evolved. At the end-Triassic event,  the vegetation turnover in the Southern Hemisphere  consisted in the replacement to Alisporites (corystosperm)-dominated assemblage to a Classopollis (cheirolepidiacean)-dominated one.

Despite their difference, these three extinction events are consequences of dramatic environmental upheavals that generated comparable extinction patterns, and similar phases of vegetation recovery but at different temporal scales. First, all these events share a similar pattern of a short-term bloom of opportunistic “crisis” taxa proliferating in the devastated environment. Second, there’s a pulse in pioneer communities (spore spike). Third , a recovery in diversity including the evolution of new taxa. Furthermore, the longer the extreme environmental conditions last the greater is the extinction rate and the extinction patterns between autotrophs and heterotrophs, and between terrestrial and marine faunas become more similar (Vajda and Bercovici, 2014).



Vivi Vajda & Antoine Bercovici (2014); The global vegetation pattern across the Cretaceous–Paleogene mass extinction interval: A template for other extinction events; Global and Planetary Change (advance online publication) Open Access DOI: 10.1016/j.gloplacha.2014.07.014,

Vajda, V., Raine, J.I., 2003. Pollen and spores in marine Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary sediments at mid–Waipara River, North Canterbury, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics 46, 255–273

Wang, Y., Huang, C., Sun, B., Quan, C., Wu, J., Lin, Z., 2014. Paleo-CO2 variation trends and the Cretaceous greenhouse climate. Earth-Science Reviews 129, 136–147.

Vanessa C. Bowman, Jane E. Francis, Rosemary A. Askinb, James B. Riding, Graeme T. Swindles, Latest Cretaceous–earliest Paleogene vegetation and climate change at the high southern latitudes: palynological evidence fromSeymour Island, Antarctic Peninsula, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 408. 26-47. DOI 10.1016/j.palaeo.2014.04.018

Barreda VD, Cúneo NR, Wilf P, Currano ED, Scasso RA, et al. (2012) Cretaceous/Paleogene Floral Turnover in Patagonia: Drop in Diversity, Low Extinction, and a Classopollis Spike. PLoS ONE 7(12): e52455. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0052455

Brusatte, S. L., Butler, R. J., Barrett, P. M., Carrano, M. T., Evans, D. C., Lloyd, G. T., Mannion, P. D., Norell, M. A., Peppe, D. J., Upchurch, P., and Williamson, T. E. In press. The extinction of the dinosaurs.Biological Reviews


3 thoughts on “The palynological record and the extinction events.

  1. Pingback: The plant fossil record and mass extinction events. | Letters from Gondwana.

  2. Pingback: A palaeobotanical perspective on the Permian extinction. | Letters from Gondwana.

  3. Pingback: A Tale of Two Exctintions. | Letters from Gondwana.

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