Late Pleistocene paleohydrography and diatom paleoecology of the central basin of Lake Malawi, Africa

Jeffery R. Stone, Karlyn S. Westover, Andrew S. Cohen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

61 Scopus citations


Analysis of sedimentary diatom assemblages (10 to 144. ka) form the basis for a detailed reconstruction of the paleohydrography and diatom paleoecology of Lake Malawi. Lake-level fluctuations on the order of hundreds of meters were inferred from dramatic changes in the fossil and sedimentary archives. Many of the fossil diatom assemblages we observed have no analog in modern Lake Malawi. Cyclotelloid diatom species are a major component of fossil assemblages prior to 35. ka, but are not found in significant abundances in the modern diatom communities in Lake Malawi. Salinity- and alkalinity-tolerant plankton has not been reported in the modern lake system, but frequently dominant fossil diatom assemblages prior to 85. ka. Large stephanodiscoid species that often dominate the plankton today are rarely present in the fossil record prior to 31. ka. Similarly, prior to 31. ka, common central-basin aulacoseiroid species are replaced by species found in the shallow, well-mixed southern basin. Surprisingly, tychoplankton and periphyton were not common throughout prolonged lowstands, but tended to increase in relative abundance during periods of inferred deeper-lake environments. A high-resolution lake level reconstruction was generated by a principle component analysis of fossil diatom and wet-sieved fossil and mineralogical residue records. Prior to 70. ka, fossil assemblages suggest that the central basin was periodically a much shallower, more saline and/or alkaline, well-mixed environment. The most significant reconstructed lowstands are ~. 600. m below the modern lake level and span thousands of years. These conditions contrast starkly with the deep, dilute, dysaerobic environments of the modern central basin. After 70. ka, our reconstruction indicates sustained deeper-water environments were common, marked by a few brief, but significant, lowstands. High amplitude lake-level fluctuations appear related to changes in insolation. Seismic reflection data and additional sediment cores recovered from the northern basin of Lake Malawi provide evidence that supports our reconstruction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)51-70
Number of pages20
JournalPalaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2011

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding for this project was provided by the U.S. National Science Foundation-Earth System History Program ( EAR-0602350 ), the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program , and the Smithsonian Institution . Initial core processing and sampling was carried out at LacCore, the National Lake Core Repository at the University of Minnesota. Diatom sample preparation and analyses were conducted at the Fritz Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We thank Chris Scholz and two reviewers for valuable suggestions that improved the manuscript. We also thank D.H. Jewson, S.C. Fritz, S. Spaulding, T.C. Johnson, W. Hobbs, and M. Julius for valuable discussions.

Copyright 2011 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Diatoms
  • East Africa
  • Lake levels
  • Paleoclimate
  • Pleistocene

Continental Scientific Drilling Facility tags

  • GLAD7


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