Abstract

Early–middle Eocene (ca. 53–38 Ma) sediments of the Eureka Sound Group in Canada’s Arctic Archipelago preserve evidence of lush mixed conifer-broadleaf rain forests, inhabited at times by alligators, turtles, and diverse mammals, including primates, tapirs, brontotheres, and hippo-like Coryphodon. This biota reflects a greenhouse world, offering a climatic and ecologic deep time analog of a mild ice-free Arctic that may be our best means to predict what is in store for the future Arctic if current climate change goes unchecked. In our review of the early–middle Eocene Arctic flora and vertebrate fauna, we place the Arctic fossil localities in historic, geographic, and stratigraphic context, and we provide an integrated synthesis and discussion of the paleobiology and paleoecology of these Eocene Arctic forests and their vertebrate inhabitants. The abundance and diversity of tapirs and plagiomenids (both rare elements in midlatitude faunas), and the absence of artiodactyls, early horses, and the hyopsodontid “condylarth” Hyopsodus (well represented at midlatitude localities) are peculiar to the Eocene Arctic. The Eocene Arctic macrofloras reveal a forested landscape analogous to the swamp-cypress and broadleaf floodplain forests of the modern southeastern United States. Multiple climate proxies indicate a mild temperate early–middle Eocene Arctic with winter temperatures at or just above freezing and summer temperatures of 20 °C (or higher), and high precipitation. At times, this high precipitation resulted in freshwater discharge into a nearly enclosed Arctic Ocean basin, sufficient to cause surface freshening of the Arctic Ocean, supporting mats of the floating fern Azolla. Fluctuating Arctic Ocean sea level due to freshwater inputs as well as tectonics produced temporary land bridges, allowing land plants and animals to disperse between North America and both Europe and Asia.

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