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OHIO professor Nancy Stevens helps uncover ecosystem evolution in Africa in paper published in Science

Ohio University’s Nancy J. Stevens Ph.D., distinguished professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences in the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, is coauthor on a paper published in the journal Science and funded by the National Science Foundation that documents the evolution of grassland ecosystems on continental Africa.  

Collaborating with an extensive team of geologists and paleoanthropologists from universities around the world, led by researchers from Baylor University and the University of Minnesota, the team synthesized data from nine Early Miocene fossil localities in the East African Rift of Kenya and Uganda to determine that the expansion of grassy biomes dominated by grasses with the C4 photosynthetic pathway in Eastern Africa occurred more than 10 million years earlier.

According to the paper, previous reconstructions of early Miocene ecosystems, 15-20 million years ago, have suggested that equatorial Africa was covered by a semi-continuous forest, with open habitats dominated by warm-season, or C4, grasses that were uncommon until 8-10 million years ago. C4 refers to the different pathways that plants use to capture carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. C4 plants produce a four-carbon molecule and are more adapted to warm or hot season condition under moist or dry environments.

As the researchers gathered expertise about geological features, isotopes and fossils found at the sites, the paradigm of a continuous forest blanketing equatorial Africa during the early Miocene shifted to a more complex mosaic of habitats that already included open environments with C4 grasses.  

The result of this research pushes back the oldest evidence of C4 grass-dominated habitats in Africa – and globally – by more than 10 million years, with important implications for primate evolution and the origins of tropical C4 grasslands and savanna ecosystems across the African continent and around the world.  

“We suspected that we would find C4 plants at some sites, but we didn't expect to find them at as many sites as we did, and in such high abundance,” Daniel Peppe, lead author and associate professor at Baylor University, said.

A critical aspect of this work was that the team combined many different lines of evidence together: geology, fossil soils, isotopes and phytoliths (plant silica microfossils) to reach their conclusions.

“This research is a big win for collaborative science and documents the value of looking ever deeper in time, and more synthetically across disciplines, to better understand the ecological backdrop for faunal and floral evolution,” Stevens added. “It’s an exciting time to investigate environmental change, and projects like this one generate pivotal data for charting future decisions about resource use and wellbeing on our planet today.”

April 28, 2023
Staff reports