Reconstructing Cenozoic Patagonian biotas using multi-proxy fossil records

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The fossil record from Cenozoic sediments provides a great deal of information that has direct bearing on the early assembling of modern Patagonian ecosystems. In this synthesis, we revise selected fossil marine and terrestrial records from the last 66 Ma with the aim of understanding major shifts of Patagonian biotas. From the Paleocene to the mid Eocene this region supported outstandingly diverse terrestrial assemblages that show strong connections to modern-day Australasia (e.g. gum trees, casuarinas, monotremes). Nearshore marine biotas confirm peak warmth conditions, with tropical species with Tethyan affinities. The late Eocene and early Oligocene marks the onset of a period of overall regional cooling, drying, and increasingly variable ecological conditions. The rise of palm-dominated flammable biomes in hinterlands and the prevalence of Gondwanan gallery forest (e.g. southern beeches and podocarps) along river-sides supported the existence of mosaic habitats maintained by edaphic and regional climatic conditions. This shift in landscapes reflects the evolution of a wide range of herbivorous mammals (e.g. Notoungulata, Litopterna, and Astrapotheria). The late Oligocene and early-to-mid Miocene witnessed a dramatic modification of landscapes including the incursion of high sea-level episodes, the emergence of specialized coastal (i.e. salt-marsh) plant taxa and the expansion of large herbivorous mammals with predominantly high-crowned teeth (e.g. Notoungulata: Hegetotheriidae, Interatheriidae, and Mesotheriidae). The cooling trend of this interval was interrupted by a mid-Miocene transient warming event, with the dispersion of terrestrial (e.g. platyrrhine monkeys, palms) and marine (e.g. Tuberculodinium vancampoae) elements with tropical affinity into southernmost South American regions. Seasonally-dry conditions increased towards the end of the Miocene, yet subtropical species persisted either in terrestrial (e.g. malpighs, passion vines, capybaras), and marine (e.g. Subtropical and Caribbean molluscs) environments. The increasing aridity caused by the Andean uplift wiped out most of the forest species and promoted the diversification of open-habitat species; the emergence of the current grass-dominated Patagonian Steppe occurred later on, probably during the Quaternary.






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Palazzesi, L, SF Vizcaíno, VD Barreda, JI Cuitiño, CJ del Río, F Goin, MS González Estebenet, MV Guler, et al. (2021). Reconstructing Cenozoic Patagonian biotas using multi-proxy fossil records. Journal of South American Earth Sciences, 112. pp. 103513–103513. 10.1016/j.jsames.2021.103513 Retrieved from

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Richard Frederick Kay

Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology

I have two areas of research:1) the evolution of primates in South America; and 2) the use of primate anatomy to reconstruct the phylogenetic history and adapations of living and extinct primates, especially Anthropoidea.

1) Evolution of primates and mammalian faunal evolution, especially in South America. For the past 30 years, I have been engaged in research in Argentina, Bolivia The Dominican Republic, Peru, and Colombia with three objectives:a) to reconstruct the evolutionary history and adaptive patterns of South America primates and other mammals; b) to establish a more precise geologic chronology for the mammalian faunas between the late Eocene and middle Miocene (between about 36 and about 15 million years ago); and c) to use anatomy and niche structure of modern mammals as a means to reconstruct the evolution of mammalian niche structure in the Neotropics.

2) Primate Anatomy. I am working to reconstruct the phylogeny of primates based (principally) on anatomical evidence; and to infer the adaptations of extinct primates based mainly on cranial and dental evidence.

Field activities
Current fieldwork is focused on the study of terrestrial biotic change in Patagonia through the 'mid-Miocene Climate Optimum' when global climate was moderate and the subtropical zone, with primates and other typically tropical vertebrates, extended their ranges up to 55 degrees of South latitude.

In this collaborative research undertaking with colleagues at University of Washington and Boise State University, the geochronology of the Santa Cruz Formation at in extreme southern Argentina is being refined using radiometric dating. Stratigraphically-controlled collections have been made of vertebrates and plant macro- and microfossils. Climate change and its impact on the biota is assessed 1) using biogeochemical analysis of stable isotopes in fossil mammalian tooth enamel; 2) by documenting changes in mammalian community structure (richness, origination and extinction rates, and ecological morphology); and 3) by documenting changes in vegetation and floral composition through the study of phytoliths. These three independent lines of evidence in a refined geochronologic framework will then be compared with similar evidence from continental sequences in the Northern Hemisphere and oceanic climatic records to improve our understanding of the timing and character of climatic change in continental high latitudes during this temporal interval.

A second field project project in its early stages is the study of the fossil vertebrates of the Amazon Basin. The latter is a collaborative effort of biologists and geologists across schools at Duke (Nicholas School) and among six North American universities. My role is to direct the vertebrate paleontology component of this project in Brazil and Amazonian Peru. The hope is to recover primates from the Oligocene through Early Miocene. New material will shed light on the phylogenetic status of African Paleogene anthropoids, one of which may be the platyrrhine sister-taxon. Also, new remains of fossil primates will help to refine hypotheses about the origins of the modern families and subfamilies of platyrrhines, all of which trace back to an Early Miocene (17-21 Ma) common ancestor. Finally, new fossil primates may further constrain the time of entry of platyrrhines into South America.

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