Dynamic Carboniferous tropical forests: new views of plant function and potential for physiological forcing of climate

New Phytol. 2017 Sep;215(4):1333-1353. doi: 10.1111/nph.14700. Epub 2017 Jul 25.


Contents 1333 I. 1334 II. 1335 III. 1339 IV. 1344 V. 1347 VI. 1347 1348 1348 References 1348 SUMMARY: The Carboniferous, the time of Earth's penultimate icehouse and widespread coal formation, was dominated by extinct lineages of early-diverging vascular plants. Studies of nearest living relatives of key Carboniferous plants suggest that their physiologies and growth forms differed substantially from most types of modern vegetation, particularly forests. It remains a matter of debate precisely how differently and to what degree these long-extinct plants influenced the environment. Integrating biophysical analysis of stomatal and vascular conductivity with geochemical analysis of fossilized tissues and process-based ecosystem-scale modeling yields a dynamic and unique perspective on these paleoforests. This integrated approach indicates that key Carboniferous plants were capable of growth and transpiration rates that approach values found in extant crown-group angiosperms, differing greatly from comparatively modest rates found in their closest living relatives. Ecosystem modeling suggests that divergent stomatal conductance, leaf sizes and stem life span between dominant clades would have shifted the balance of soil-atmosphere water fluxes, and thus surface runoff flux, during repeated, climate-driven, vegetation turnovers. This synthesis highlights the importance of 'whole plant' physiological reconstruction of extinct plants and the potential of vascular plants to have influenced the Earth system hundreds of millions of years ago through vegetation-climate feedbacks.

Keywords: Carboniferous; medullosans; paleoclimate; paleophysiology; vegetation-climate feedbacks.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Carbon / metabolism*
  • Forests*
  • Phylogeny
  • Plant Leaves / physiology
  • Plant Physiological Phenomena*
  • Plant Stems / physiology
  • Tropical Climate*


  • Carbon