The study found that modern Asian biodiversity has been shaped by ancient climatic changes.
Thirty-four million years ago, sudden climate change caused ecological breakdown in Central Asia. Deserts spread across the lowlands, and biological diversity was permanently affected. These are the findings by an international team, led by researchers from the University of Amsterdam, Stockholm University, and the CNRS (France). Their results are now published in the scientific journal Science Advances.
The study integrated fossil pollen (the reproductive material of plants) from Asia with geological, faunal, and climate datasets. This revealed an ecological catastrophe around 34 million years ago, caused by rapid changes in climate and atmospheric carbon dioxide. Large areas of Mongolia, Tibet, and northwestern China became hyperarid deserts with little vegetation cover. Larger animals were mainly replaced by small mammals like rodents. Now, deserts are once again expanding rapidly across the region, possibly signalling new ecological devastation.
"The results have major implications for future biodiversity, agriculture, and human wellbeing," said Dr. Natasha Barbolini, lead author and researcher in palaeoecology at the University of Amsterdam (now at Stockholm University). "Evidence from the past shows us that the Central Asian region will never recover its unique biological diversity if desertification continues."
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