Early plant organics increased global terrestrial mud deposition through enhanced flocculation

Science. 2021 Jan 29;371(6528):526-529. doi: 10.1126/science.abd0379.


An irreversible increase in alluvial mudrock occurred with the Ordovician-Silurian evolution of bryophytes, challenging a paradigm that deep-rooted plants were responsible for this landscape shift. We tested the idea that increased primary production and plant organics promoted aggregation of clay into flocs in rivers and facilitated mud deposition on floodplains. In experiments, we observed that clay readily flocculated for organic and clay concentrations common to modern rivers, yielding settling velocities three orders of magnitude larger than those without organics. Using a transport model, we found that flocculation substantially increased mud deposition, resulting in muddier floodplains. Thus, organic-induced flocculation may have been more critical than deep-rooted plants in the proliferation of muddy floodplains.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't