Montoya, E. (2011) Paleocology of the southern Gran Sabana (SE Venezuela) since the Late Glacial to the present. PhD Thesis, Department of Animal Biology, Plant Biology and Ecology, Unitersitat Autonoma de Barcelona.
This thesis is aimed to study the paleoecology of the southern Gran Sabana region (GS; SE Venezuela) since the Late Glacial to the present. This region is characterized nowadays by the occurrence of large extent of savannas in a climate suitable for rainforests. For this purpose, three sequences (two from peat bogs and one from lake sediments) have been analyzed for pollen and spores, non-pollen palynomorphs (NPP), and microscopic charcoal particles. Among the sequences analyzed, two of them are located currently within treeless savannas (Lakes Chonita and Encantada); whereas the third one is placed in the boundary between GS savannas and Amazon forests (El Paují). The Late Glacial interval of Lake Chonita was characterized by a shrubland that was replaced by a treeless savanna at the end of Younger Dryas (YD) and the onset of the Holocene, linked to the occurrence of regional fires since ca. 12.4 cal kyr BP. The beginning of local fires was dated synchronous with the vegetation replacement, ca. 11.7 cal kyr BP. A similar shrubland, though not identical, is located nowadays around 200 m elevation above the lake, so the replacement by surrounding savannas was interpreted as a probably upward displacement of the former vegetation and an increase in average temperatures of approximately 0.7 ‐1.5ºC. This section represents the oldest interval analyzed for GS so far, and the presence of fires during the Late Pleistocene is among the oldest fire records documented for northern South America. The peat bog records of Lake Encantada and El Paují showed the main vegetation trends of the last 8 cal kyr BP, which were characterized by the continuous occurrence of regional fires. In Lake Encantada, the presence of treeless savannas was reported during the whole interval analyzed as the dominant vegetation type, despite variations in forest abundance and composition taxa of the community also occurred. The vegetation changes in this record were interpreted as mainly due to climatic shifts until the Late Holocene. At El Paují, the occurrence of forests and savanna/forest mosaics was reported during the same interval, and fire was postulated to have been the major driver of the vegetation shifts. In this sequence, a treeless savanna was not recorded as the dominant vegetation of the landscape until the last millennia, and the presence of two different indigenous cultures was postulated as responsible of the shifts in fire regime registered, with an interval of human land abandonment between them. This interval was characterized by the cessation of fires, and the establishment of a secondary dry forest. The Late Holocene was characterized, in the three sequences studied, by a sudden increase of fires, which likely favored the expansion of savannas and the establishment of the present GS landscape.
The join interpretation of the records presented in this thesis, together with previous analyses in the region, highlighted some key aspects for understanding the main trends of GS landscape and vegetation, e.g., the appearance and establishment of morichales (Mauritia palm stands typical of current southern GS landscapes) has been restricted to the last two millennia, synchronous with the increase in fire incidence. Moreover, it has been possible to gather empirical evidence for testing some previous hypothesis regarding GS. For example, the proposal of an extended aridity prior the Holocene has been rejected, whereas the hypothesis about the postglacial expansion of morichales has been supported. In this sense, with all the available information to date, some suggestions have been proposed: (i) Climate and fire have been the major forcing factors operating in the GS; (ii) During the Late Glacial and the beginning of the Early Holocene, the landscape of southern GS was likely formed by a mosaic of forests, shrubs, and savannas, without the current supremacy of the last vegetation type, which only established during the last 2 cal kyr BP onwards; (iii) Some general climatic trends have been inferred for the study area, as for example an increase in average temperatures around the Late Glacial/Early Holocene transition, a dry interval from 8 to 5 cal kyr BP, and a wetter phase during the Mid-Holocene centered around 4 cal kyr BP; (iv) The establishment of Mauritia in the region has been likely driven by a synergism between biogeographical, climatic and anthropogenic factors, as well as the likely pyrophilous nature of this palm given its synchronous appearance with the increase of fires; (v) The settlement of the modern indigenous culture (Pemón) occurred at least since around ca. 2000 cal yr BP onwards, 1500 yr earlier than previously thought, but previous human presence in the region has been also documented; and (vi) The fire activity observed in the long-term has caused a huge impact on GS landscape.
Examined by: Prof. Jose S. Carrion (Univesity of Murcia), Dr Toby Pennington (Royal Botanic Garden of Ediburgh), Prof. Francisco LLoret (Autonomous University of Barcelona), Dr Fred Stauffer, (Conservatoire et Jardin botaniques Ville de Geneve), and Dr Walter Finsinger (CNRS).
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