Biogeographical Evidence for the Grass (Poaceae) Species of Pleistocene Beringian Lowlands

  • David K. Swanson
Keywords: Alaska, Beringia, biogeography, grass, Pleistocene, Poaceae, Russia, tundra, steppe, vegetation


Late Pleistocene Beringia had herb-dominated vegetation with abundant grasses (Poaceae), and it was inhabited by an impressive assemblage of large grazing mammals. This paper reconstructs the list of most probable late Pleistocene Beringian lowland grass species from biogeographical evidence. Late Pleistocene eolian sediments and buried soils indicate that large areas of the Beringian lowlands had nutrient-rich, silty soils that occurred over ice-rich permafrost but were generally not waterlogged. A list of likely grasses was compiled from all species that have been recorded on similar fine-grained, mesic-to-dry lowland soils (i.e., presumed refugia) and are distributed at least sporadically across the whole region today. Grasses from 13 genera met these criteria, including most of the taxa that have been identified as late Pleistocene fossils from the study area. Most of these grasses are high-latitude species of genera that are also common in temperate latitudes (e.g., Elymus, Festuca, and Poa). This diverse group of plants has a wide range of adaptations today, suggesting that grasses would have been available to occupy a variety of habitats through Pleistocene climatic fluctuations. Among these grasses are a number of highly productive forage species.