The influence of aridity and fire on Holocene prairie communities in the eastern Prairie Peninsula

David M. Nelson, Sheng Hu Feng, Eric C. Grimm, B. Brandon Curry, Jennifer E. Slate

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62 Scopus citations


The role of climate and fire in the development, maintenance, and species composition of prairie in the eastern axis of the tallgrass Prairie Peninsula intrigued early North American ecologists. However, evaluation of the long-standing hypotheses about the region's environmental history has been hampered by the scarcity of paleorecords. We conducted multiproxy analyses on early and middle Holocene sediments from two Illinois, USA, lakes to assess long-term climatic, vegetational, and fire variability in the region. Sediment mineral composition, carbonate δ18O, ostracode assemblages, and diatom assemblages were integrated to infer fluctuations in moisture availability. Pollen and charcoal δ13C were used to reconstruct vegetation composition, and charcoal influx was used to reconstruct fire. Results indicate that fire-sensitive trees (e.g., Ulmus, Ostrya, Fraxinus, and Acer saccharum) declined and prairie taxa expanded with increased aridity from 10 000 yr BP to 8500 yr BP. Between ∼8500 yr BP and ∼6200 yr BP, aridity declined, and prairie coexisted with fire-sensitive and fire-tolerant (e.g., Quercus and Carya) trees. After ∼6200 yr BP, prairie taxa became dominant, although aridity was not more severe than it was around 8500 yr BP. Along with aridity, fire appears to have played an important role in the establishment and maintenance of prairie communities in the eastern Prairie Peninsula, consistent with the speculations of the early ecologists. Comparison of our data with results from elsewhere in the North American midcontinent indicates that spatial heterogeneity is a characteristic feature of climatic and vegetational variations on millennial time scales.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2523-2536
Number of pages14
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2006

Bibliographical note

Copyright 2008 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Charcoal
  • Climate change
  • Fire
  • Grasslands
  • Holocene
  • Paleoecology
  • Pollen
  • Tallgrass Prairie Peninsula


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