Abstract

Several highly effective fire-adaptive traits first evolved among modern plants during the mid-Cretaceous, in response to the widespread wildfires promoted by anomalously high atmospheric oxygen (O2) and extreme temperatures. Serotiny, or long-term canopy seed storage, is a fire-adaptive strategy common among plants living in fire-prone areas today, but evidence of this strategy has been lacking from the fossil record. Deposits of abundant fossil charcoal from sedimentary successions of the Chatham Islands, New Zealand, record wildfires in the south polar regions (75°–80°S) during the mid-Cretaceous (ca. 99–90 Ma). Newly discovered fossil conifer reproductive structures were consistently associated with these charcoal-rich deposits. The morphology and internal anatomy as revealed by neutron tomography exhibit a range of serotiny-associated characters. Numerous related fossils from similar, contemporaneous deposits of the Northern Hemisphere suggest that serotiny was a key adaptive strategy during the high-fire world of the Cretaceous.

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