During the first 10–20 Kyr of the Eocene temperatures warmed by 4–8°C in middle and high latitudes, then cooled again over the succeeding ∼200 Kyr. Major changes in the composition of marine and terrestrial faunas, including one of the largest mammalian turnover events of the Cenozoic, occurred during this temperature excursion. To better understand the effects of rapid climatic change on continental biotas, we studied 60 fossil pollen samples collected from 900 m of section spanning approximately three million years of the late Paleocene and early Eocene; the samples come from the Fort Union Formation and Willwood Formation in the Bighorn Basin of northwestern Wyoming, paleolatitude approximately 47°N. There are 40 samples from the 500 m of rock deposited during the one million year interval centered on the Paleocene/Eocene boundary, although pollen was not preserved well in rocks representing the short warm interval at the base of the Eocene.
Overall, the palynoflora shows moderate change in composition and diversity. Two pollen taxa clearly expanded their ranges to include North America in the first 400 Kyr of the Eocene, Platycarya (Juglandaceae), and Intratriporopollenites instructus (cf. Tilia), but they account for less than 5% of pollen grains in the early Eocene. There are no last appearances of common taxa associated with the Paleocene/Eocene boundary. The most noticeable palynological changes are the decrease in abundance of Caryapollenites spp. and Polyatriopollenites vermontensis (Juglandaceae), and the increase in abundance of Taxodiaceae (bald cypress family), Ulmaceae (elm family), and Betulaceae (birch family), particularly Alnipollenites spp. (alder). There are 22% more species in the Eocene samples than in the Paleocene samples; mean richness of Eocene samples is 17% higher than the mean of Paleocene samples. The mean evenness of Eocene samples is higher than that of Paleocene samples, but the difference is not significant.
The modest level of floral change during the late Paleocene and early Eocene contrasts with the major taxonomic turnover and ecological rearrangement of North American mammalian faunas observed at the same time. Faunal change probably resulted from intercontinental range expansion across Arctic land bridges that became habitable as a result of high-latitude warming, so it is surprising that climatically sensitive plants did not also experience a major episode of interchange. The absence of fossil plants from the temperature excursion interval itself could prevent us from recognizing a transient shift in floral composition, but it is clear that the flora did not undergo a major and permanent restructuring like that seen in the mammals. The contrast between the moderate floral response to warming and the strong faunal response is consistent with the idea that interactions between immigrant and native taxa, rather than climate directly, were the primary cause of terrestrial biotic change across the Paleocene/Eocene boundary.