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Presented By: Earth and Environmental Sciences

Smith Lecture: To See the Forest for the Leaves: Evolution of Tropical Rainforests in Deep Time

Mónica Carvalho, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Living tropical rainforests are hotspots of biodiversity and are key components of global hydrology and climate. These ecological functions are highly dependent on tree composition, canopy structure, and a high complexity of biotic and abiotic interactions that affect forest function. How has tropical rainforest composition and function changed through geologic time?

Leaf fossils reflect deep evolutionary relations that interplay with environmental and growth conditions, and can be used to identify the natural affinities of plants, and assess both biotic interactions and assessment of forest ecology. In this talk I will explore the Late Cretaceous and Paleogene leaf fossil record from the northern Andes of Colombia and use an interdisciplinary approach to study the evolution of tropical forests in response to two major events in Earth’s history: the ecological catastrophe at the end-Cretaceous and the global warming events of the Paleocene-Eocene transition. I combine observational and experimental approaches on plant function with the fossil record to unveil changes in forest composition, structure, biotic interactions and forest paleobiology. This approach is key to understanding the effects of past global warming events and other abiotic perturbations on tropical rainforest function, and a means to predict the response of modern ecosystems to ongoing and future climate projections.

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