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History of grasslands protect their future

A new perspective on the evolutionary history of grasslands has emerged thanks to key developments in palaeontology and molecular phylogenetics. A clearer understanding of the links between diversification and extinction events, and climate can help to protect grassland biodiversity from the effects of climate change.
History of grasslands protect their future
By examining the effects of past environmental changes, scientists are able to understand how species will react to a changing climate in the future. Therefore, understanding the evolutionary history of grassland ecosystems with regard to past biotic and abiotic changes will influence how they are managed in the face of future environmental change.

The aim of the GRASSLANDS (The evolution of the grassland biome: exploring past events to predict future scenarios) project was to explore the origin and spread of the grasslands biome. Researchers used fossil data, molecular phylogenetics and computer models to examine the origins of their two main components, the grasses (Poaceae) and the daises (Asteraceae).

There is a widespread belief that the origin and diversification of Poaceae and the Asteraceae were roughly simultaneous with the expansion of the grasslands. The project set out to determine whether this diversification occurred much earlier, during the Paleogene period, than the expansion of true grasslands, which occurred during the Neogene.

Scientists investigated which of these two hypotheses – Neogene versus Palaeogene diversification of Poaceae and Asteraceae – was best supported on the basis of an independent analysis of DNA sequence data and a reassessment of the fossil record used as time constraints.

Researchers produced a comprehensive phylogenetic framework for the family Asteraceae and used fossil records to obtain divergence time estimates. An important review of the fossil record of the daisy family was conducted. This helped to assess potential calibration points for obtained divergence time estimates for Asteraceae.

Molecular analysis revealed that the most recent common ancestor of Asteraceae has been present since the Late Cretaceous, around 85.9 million years ago, when the last dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Researchers also found evidence of increased diversification of the daisy and grass families during the Miocene, which agreed with a steep decline in carbon dioxide during this period.

GRASSLANDS will have major implications regarding how and under which circumstances open habitat ecosystems evolved. It also provides new insights into the rise of flowering plants. The initiative will ultimately help to predict how these important grassland systems will respond to future climate changes, which is crucial in order to protect some of the richest sources of biodiversity on the planet.

Related information


Evolutionary history, grasslands, GRASSLANDS, biome, palaeontology, molecular phylogenetics, biodiversity, Poaceae, Asteraceae
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