The rise of fire: Fossil charcoal in late Devonian marine shales as an indicator of expanding terrestrial ecosystems, fire, and atmospheric change

American Journal of Science
By: , and 



Fossil charcoal provides direct evidence for fire events that, in turn, have implications for the evolution of both terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere. Most of the ancient charcoal record is known from terrestrial or nearshore environments and indicates the earliest occurrences of fire in the Late Silurian. However, despite the rise in available fuel through the Devonian as vascular land plants became larger and trees and forests evolved, charcoal occurrences are very sparse until the Early Mississippian where extensive charcoal suggests well-established fire systems. We present data from the latest Devonian and Early Mississippian of North America from terrestrial and marine rocks indicating that fire became more widespread and significant at this time. This increase may be a function of rising O2 levels and the occurrence of fire itself may have contributed to this rise through positive feedback. Recent atmospheric modeling suggests an O2 low during the Middle Devonian (around 17.5%), with O2 rising steadily through the Late Devonian and Early Mississippian (to 21–22%) that allowed for widespread burning for the first time. In Devonian-Mississippian marine black shales, fossil charcoal (inertinite) steadily increases up-section suggesting the rise of widespread fire systems. There is a concomitant increase in the amount of vitrinite (preserved woody and other plant tissues) that also suggests increased sources of terrestrial organic matter. Even as end Devonian glaciation was experienced, fossil charcoal continued to be a source of organic matter being introduced into the Devonian oceans. Scanning electron and reflectance microscopy of charcoal from Late Devonian terrestrial sites indicate that the fires were moderately hot (typically 500–600 °C) and burnt mainly surface vegetation dominated by herbaceous zygopterid ferns and lycopsids, rather than being produced by forest crown fires. The occurrence and relative abundance of fossil charcoal in marine black shales are significant in that these shales may provide a more continuous record of fire than is preserved in terrestrial environments. Our data support the idea that major fires are not seen in the fossil record until there is both sufficient and connected fuel and a high enough atmospheric O2 content for it to burn.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title The rise of fire: Fossil charcoal in late Devonian marine shales as an indicator of expanding terrestrial ecosystems, fire, and atmospheric change
Series title American Journal of Science
DOI 10.2475/08.2015.01
Volume 315
Issue 8
Year Published 2015
Language English
Publisher American Journal of Science
Contributing office(s) Central Energy Resources Science Center
Description 21 p.
First page 713
Last page 733
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