Working Group

Origins of c4 grasslands: a new synthesis of phylogeny, ecology and paleobiology

PI(s): Colin P Osborne (University of Sheffield)
Christopher Still (University of California-Santa Barbara)
Caroline A E Stromberg (University of Washington)
Start Date: 10-Oct-2010
End Date: 10-Oct-2012
Keywords: ecology, phylogenetics, paleontology, biogeography, macroevolution

Grasslands cover large areas of the Earth's surface, and are major drivers of biogeochemical cycles and surface feedbacks on climate. Tropical and subtropical grasslands, and savannas are dominated by C4 grasses, and the rapid assembly of these ecosystems in the Miocene ranks among the most dramatic events of biome evolution in geological history. Despite more than two decades of research, the environmental drivers of this event are still hotly debated, with controversy surrounding the relative importance of C3 and C4 photosynthetic pathways versus the ecological processes that shape grassland communities. Emerging evidence about grass phylogeny and the ecological contrasts between grass lineages is also crucial to the debate. However, we currently lack the integrative framework required to synthesize these disparate strands of evidence. We organized a NESCent Catalysis Meeting in 2009 to initiate an interdisciplinary solution to this problem. Its outcome was a fresh perspective that emphasized the evolution of niche space in grassland dominants. The proposed Working Group (WG) will advance these ideas by: 1. Assembling and aggregating the databases required to achieve synthesis of grass phylogeny, extant grassland ecosystem ecology, and grassland paleobiology. 2. Using this synthesis to gain novel insight into the ways that phylogeny determines ecological sorting of dominant grasses in extant and extinct grasslands and savannas. By providing public web access to the data synthesis, this WG will facilitate the integration and interpretation of information on grass species traits (including photosynthetic pathway), the evolutionary relationships among grass species, and grassland ecosystem ecology through geological time.

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