Abstract

The Nebraska Sand Hills are a stabilized dune field in the central United States that reflect past conditions of drought. The most recent drought, known as the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, occurred from A.D. 900 to A.D. 1300 and had an enormous effect on the thriving prairie ecosystem, which included large populations of the plains pocket gopher (Geomys bursarius). Burrows of these organisms across a paleosol-eolian sand boundary in the Sand Hills indicate abrupt climate change during the transition from stabilized to active dune field and from humid to arid conditions. Medieval gophers tunneled at greater depths below the surface than do modern gophers, indicating the behavioral changes these animals underwent to survive during the transition. The gophers were likely surviving on roots remaining in the underlying soil as it was buried by sand; they tunneled >1 m up to the surface to deposit mounds of excavated soil and sand. Most of the burrows occur in areas of low-angle bedding, suggesting loss of vegetation occurred first on the crests of the newly formed dunes while vegetation persisted in the interdunes. Optically stimulated luminescence dates from a dune containing ancient gopher burrows are nearly identical throughout the height of the dune, indicating rapid accumulation of sand. As accumulation of sand was rapid, vegetative loss must also have occurred quickly, though not in a uniform pattern across the region. Pocket gophers were apparently able to survive in areas of remaining vegetation for a short time, but in a relatively short period of time, they were unable to reach their food sources and were forced ultimately to abandon the uplands in the region.

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