A Middle Eocene lowland humid subtropical “Shangri-La” ecosystem in central Tibet

Tao Su*, Alexander J Farnsworth, Robert A. Spicer, Fei-Xiang Wu, Jian Huang, Cedric Del Rio, Tao Deng, Ding Lin, Wei Yu Dong Deng, Yong Jiang Huang, Alice Hughes, Lin Bo Jia, Jian-Hua Jin, Shufeng Li, Shui-Qing Liang, Jia Liu, Xiao-Yan Liu, Sarah Sherlock, Teresa E V Spicer, Gaurav SrivastavaHe Tang, Paul J Valdes, Teng-Xiang Wang, Mike Widdowson, Meng-Xiao Wu, Yao-Wu Xing, Cong-Li Xu, Jian Yang, Cong Zhang, Shi Tao Zhang, Xin-Wen Zhang, Fan Zhao, Zhekun Zhou

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


Tibet’s ancient topography and its role in climatic and biotic evolution remain speculative due to a paucity of quantitative surface-height measurements through time and space, and sparse fossil records. However, newly discovered fossils from a present elevation of ∼4,850 m in central Tibet improve substantially our knowledge of the ancient Tibetan environment. The 70 plant fossil taxa so far recovered include the first occurrences of several modern Asian lineages and represent a Middle Eocene (∼47 Mya) humid subtropical ecosystem. The fossils not only record the diverse composition of the ancient Tibetan biota, but also allow us to constrain the Middle Eocene land surface height in central Tibet to ∼1,500 ± 900 m, and quantify the prevailing thermal and hydrological regime. This “Shangri-La”–like ecosystem experienced monsoon seasonality with a mean annual temperature of ∼19 °C, and frosts were rare. It contained few Gondwanan taxa, yet was compositionally similar to contemporaneous floras in both North America and Europe. Our discovery quantifies a key part of Tibetan Paleogene topography and climate, and highlights the importance of Tibet in regard to the origin of modern Asian plant species and the evolution of global biodiversity.
Original languageEnglish
JournalScience Advances
Publication statusPublished - 29 Dec 2020

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