Charcoal morphometry for paleoecological analysis: The effects of fuel type and transportation on morphological parameters

Appl Plant Sci. 2014 Aug 18;2(8):apps.1400004. doi: 10.3732/apps.1400004. eCollection 2014 Aug.


Premise of the study: Charcoal particles preserved in sediments are used as indicators of paleowildfire. Most research focuses on abundance as an indicator of fire frequency, but charcoals also convey information about the vegetation from which they are derived. One potential source of information is their morphology, which is influenced by the parent material, the nature of the fire, and subsequent transportation and burial. •

Methods: We charcoalified 26 materials from a range of plant taxa, and subjected them to simulated fluvial transport by tumbling them with water and gravel. We photographed the resulting particles, and used image analysis software to measure morphological parameters. •

Results: Leaf charcoal displayed a logarithmic decrease in area, and a logarithmic increase in circularity, with transportation time. Trends were less clear for stem or wood charcoal. Grass charcoal displayed significantly higher aspect ratios than other charcoal types. •

Conclusions: Leaf charcoal displays more easily definable relationships between morphological parameters and degree of breakdown than stem or wood charcoal. The aspect ratios of fossil mesocharcoal can indicate the broad botanical source of an assemblage. Coupled to estimates of charcoal abundance, this will improve understanding of the variation in flammability of ancient ecosystems.

Keywords: charcoal morphology; fire history; image analysis; mesocharcoal; taphonomy.