Abteilung Palynologie und Klimadynamik

Southern South America

Late-Glacial and Holocene vegetational stability of southern South America



funded by the German Research Foundation – DFG (personal grant FO 801/1-1), in collaboration with Keith Bennett, Queen’s University Belfast and Thomas Giesecke, University of Göttingen; 2011-ongoing

This project focuses on the long-term stability (or otherwise) of vegetation, based on a series of multi-proxy records in southern South America. We will build a network of sites suitable for high-resolution reconstructions of changes in vegetation since the Last Glacial Maximum, and use these to test a null hypothesis that changes in vegetation over the past 14,000 years are driven by internal dynamics rather than external forcing factors. The extent to which the null hypothesis can be falsified will reveal the degree to which we can expect to be able to predict how vegetation is affected by external events, including future climate change.

The southern fringes of the South American landmass provide a rare opportunity to examine the development of moorland vegetation with sparse tree cover in a wet, cool temperate climate of the Southern Hemisphere. We present a record of changes in vegetation over the past 17,000 years, from a lake in extreme southern Chile (Isla Santa Inés, Magallanes region, 53°38.97S; 72°25.24W; Fontana and Bennett 2012: The Holocene), where human influence on vegetation is negligible.


pollen Ballena

Percentage pollen diagram of selected taxa from Ballena, including palynological richness, compositional change or turnover and rate of change. MB2 indicates the position of the tephra layer from the Mt Burney 2 eruption.


The western archipelago of Tierra del Fuego remained treeless for most of the Lateglacial period. Nothofagus may have survived the last glacial maximum at the eastern edge of the Magellan glaciers from where it spread southwestwards and established in the region at around 10,500 cal. yr BP. Nothofagus antarctica was likely the earlier colonizing tree in the western islands, followed shortly after by Nothofagus betuloides. At 9000 cal. yr BP moorland communities expanded at the expense of Nothofagus woodland. Simultaneously, Nothofagus species shifted to dominance of the evergreen Nothofagus betuloides and the Magellanic rain forest established in the region. Rapid and drastic vegetation changes occurred at 5200 cal. yr BP, after the Mt Burney MB2 eruption, including the expansion and establishment of Pilgerodendron uviferum and the development of mixed Nothofagus-Pilgerodendron-Drimys woodland. Scattered populations of Nothofagus, as they occur today in westernmost Tierra del Fuego may be a good analogue for Nothofagus populations during the Lateglacial in eastern sites.

Climate, dispersal barriers and/or fire disturbance may have played a role controlling the postglacial spread of Nothofagus. Climate change during the Lateglacial and early Holocene was a prerequisite for the expansion of Nothofagus populations and may have controlled it at many sites in Tierra del Fuego. The delayed arrival at the site, with respect to the Holocene warming, may be due to dispersal barriers and/or fire disturbance at eastern sites, reducing the size of the source populations. The retreat of Nothofagus woodland after 9000 cal. yr BP may be due to competitive interactions with bog communities. Volcanic disturbance had a positive influence on the expansion of Pilgerodendron uviferum and facilitated the development of mixed Nothofagus-Pilgerodendron-Drimys woodland.