Cretaceous patterns of floristic change in the Antarctic Peninsula
Cretaceous radiation of angiosperms from low to high palaeolatitudes, coupled with the break-up of Gondwana, played a major role in establishing and maintaining biogeographic patterns across the southern hemisphere. Uncertainties in details of plate reconstructions provide conflicting hypotheses about area relationships of Gondwana fragments. This has led to a number of competing proposals concerning angiosperm migration across Gondwana. Central to this debate is the role of the Antarctic Peninsula, a region that is often envisaged as providing the main connection between east and west Gondwana. The initial radiation of angiosperms into the Antarctic Peninsula region, however, postdates appearances elsewhere in east Gondwana (e.g. Australia), strongly suggesting that the Antarctic Peninsula was not the main gateway, at least in the early stages of Gondwana radiation. A steep climatic gradient in this part of the world probably acted as an effective barrier to angiosperm radiation. The peak of floristic replacement coincides with the peak of Cretaceous warmth (Turonian) which in turn suggests that climatic warming acted as a forcing mechanism by pushing latitudinal belts of vegetation southwards. Once into the southern high latitudes angiosperms diversified, and as climates cooled during the Late Cretaceous a number of important groups seem to have their origins here. Recent investigations of Antarctic macro- and microfloras indicate progressive floristic replacement through the Cretaceous. Bryophytes, hepatophytes, bennettites and other seed plants all show a rapid decline in diversity. In contrast, ferns initially decline then recover, while conifers remain relatively stable. The ecological preferences of the replaced groups imply that angiosperms initially occupied areas of disturbance and were understorey colonizers, only later replacing fern thickets and becoming important in the overstorey. This pattern is consistent with those observed elsewhere through the Cretaceous.