C4 grassland ecosystems expanded across North America between ca. 8 and 3 Ma. Studies of ungulate enamel and environmental indicators from the middle Miocene Barstow Formation of southern California (USA) have demonstrated the presence of C4 vegetation prior to the late Miocene expansion of C4 grasslands. Fire promotes the growth of modern C4 grasslands and may have contributed to the Miocene expansion of C4 vegetation. We analyzed the concentration and accumulation rate (CHAR) of microscopic charred particles from sediment samples spanning the Barstow Formation in order to investigate the relationship between fire activity, canopy cover, and the presence of C4 vegetation. Concentration and CHAR were low throughout the formation then increased dramatically at 13.5 Ma. Enriched values of δ13C from soil organic matter and phytolith counts indicate the presence of C4 grasses and seasonally dry, open-canopy habitats at this time. The spike in concentration coincides with climatic cooling and drying in southern California after the Miocene Climatic Optimum. Increased fire activity may have contributed to habitat opening from forest to woodland and promoted the spread of C4 plants. This is the first charcoal record of fire activity from the middle Miocene of southwestern North America.

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