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New Phytol. 2017 Feb;213(3):1521-1532. doi: 10.1111/nph.14264. Epub 2016 Nov 7.

Changes to Cretaceous surface fire behaviour influenced the spread of the early angiosperms.

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wildFIRE Lab, Hatherly Laboratories, University of Exeter, Prince of Wales Road, Exeter, EX4 4PS, UK.


Angiosperms evolved and diversified during the Cretaceous period. Early angiosperms were short-stature weedy plants thought to have increased fire frequency and mortality in gymnosperm forest, aiding their own expansion. However, no explorations have considered whether the range of novel fuel types that diversified throughout the Cretaceous also altered fire behaviour, which should link more strongly to mortality than fire frequency alone. We measured ignitability and heat of combustion in analogue Cretaceous understorey fuels (conifer litter, ferns, weedy and shrubby angiosperms) and used these data to model palaeofire behaviour. Variations in ignition, driven by weedy angiosperms alone, were found to have been a less important feedback to changes in Cretaceous fire activity than previously estimated. Our model estimates suggest that fires in shrub and fern understories had significantly greater fireline intensities than those fuelled by conifer litter or weedy angiosperms, and whilst fern understories supported the most rapid fire spread, angiosperm shrubs delivered the largest amount of heat per unit area. The higher fireline intensities predicted by the models led to estimates of enhanced scorch of the gymnosperm canopy and a greater chance of transitioning to crown fires. Therefore, changes in fire behaviour driven by the addition of new Cretaceous fuel groups may have assisted the angiosperm expansion.


Cretaceous; angiosperm evolution; fire intensity; fire spread; wildfire

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