Montoya, E., Pedra-Méndez, J., García-Falcó, E., Gómez-Paccard, M., Giralt, S., Vegas-Vilarrúbia, T., … Rull, V. (2019). Long-term vegetation dynamics of a tropical megadelta: Mid-Holocene palaeoecology of the Orinoco Delta (NE Venezuela). Quaternary Science Reviews, 221, 105874.


Coastal wetlands have been proposed as highly threatened by the ongoing and future climatic change, including projected sea-level changes as an additional forcing factor compared to more inland locations. The limited knowledge generated to date in this topic has been primarily focused on those areas attaining a high population density, and rarely deals with long-term (>50 years) dynamics. Here we present the first Holocene palaeoecological study carried in the Orinoco Delta, in NE Venezuela. The record presented here contains sediments from the last 6200 years and is located in a river-shore swamp dominated by the palm Mauritia flexuosa. Current human occupation is almost restricted to small settlements of the Warao indigenous culture, closely related to the use of M. flexuosa and other palm species present in the zone. The results show the occurrence of three well-distinguished palynological zones: (i) from 6200 to 5200 cal yr BP, characterised by mixed rainforest and other taxa related to salinity (coastal-like), low (negative) values of magnetic susceptibility and magnetic grain size, absence of transported clays, and the highest macrocharcoal particles abundance; (ii) from 5200 to 2950 cal yr BP, marked by a replacement of the mangrove-like vegetation by a more inland mixed-swamp forest community with low levels of charcoal, and (iii) from 2950 cal yr BP to present-day, characterised by the establishment of the current vegetation community, dominated by M. flexuosa, and an increasing trend in the charcoal curve since the last 700 years. A combination of regional (climatic changes) and local (sediment ontogeny) has been proposed as the key drivers influencing the vegetation succession recorded. The stabilisation of the sea-level that occurred during the mid-Holocene would have favoured the transgression of the coastal line, with the migration of the coastal-like vegetation seawards. Synchronous to this event, a trend towards drier conditions has been reported in the close Cariaco record, that could have also influenced the vegetation replacement. Between 3800 and 2800 years ago, the increased ENSO variability registered in Cariaco may have played a key role in the expansion of the Mauritia palm community. It is suggested that in our location, the potential inhabiting human populations were differently influenced by these environmental changes. First, the disappearance of the coastal resources could have favoured land abandonment, whereas the increase in the abundance of the palm might be influential for the arrival of other inland cultures that were previously used to manage Mauritia. This sequence shows the importance of the ecosystem services for the location inhabitants, highlighting the abandonment of the mid-Holocene culture coeval with the disappearance of its ecosystem. These results also provide information about the sensitivity and resilience in facing external stressors of both humans and vegetation, and will be valuable tools for managing the future of this ecosystem.

Reference article

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