Quantitative estimates of temperature and precipitation change during the late Pleistocene and Holocene have been difficult to obtain for much of the lowland Neotropics. Using two published lacustrine pollen records and a climate-vegetation model based on the modern abundance distributions of 154 Neotropical plant families, we demonstrate how family-level counts of fossil pollen can be used to quantitatively reconstruct tropical paleoclimate and provide needed information on historic patterns of climatic change. With this family-level analysis, we show that one area of the lowland tropics, northeastern Bolivia, experienced cooling (1–3 °C) and drying (400 mm/yr), relative to present, during the late Pleistocene (50,000–12,000 calendar years before present [cal. yr B.P.]). Immediately prior to the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM, ca. 21,000 cal. yr B.P.), we observe a distinct transition from cooler temperatures and variable precipitation to a period of warmer temperatures and relative dryness that extends to the middle Holocene (5000–3000 cal. yr B.P.). This prolonged reduction in precipitation occurs against the backdrop of increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations, indicating that the presence of mixed savanna and dry-forest communities in northeastern Bolivia durng the LGM was not solely the result of low CO2 levels, as suggested previously, but also lower precipitation. The results of our analysis demonstrate the potential for using the distribution and abundance structure of modern Neotropical plant families to infer paleoclimate from the fossil pollen record.

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