Australian Journal of Botany Australian Journal of Botany Society
Southern hemisphere botanical ecosystems
RESEARCH FRONT

Fire and Late Oligocene to Mid-Miocene peat mega-swamps of south-eastern Australia: a floristic and palaeoclimatic interpretation

Ian R. K. Sluiter A D , David T. Blackburn B and Guy R. Holdgate C

A Faculty of Science and Technology, Federation University Australia, Ballarat, Vic. 3350, Australia.

B Deceased, but formerly, Botany Department, The University of Adelaide, North Terrace, Adelaide, SA 5005, Australia.

C Department of Earth Sciences, The University of Melbourne, Parkville, Vic. 3052, Australia.

D Corresponding author. Email: ian@ogyris.com.au

Australian Journal of Botany - http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/BT16165
Submitted: 20 August 2016  Accepted: 17 November 2016   Published online: 12 December 2016

Abstract

The Late Oligocene to Mid-Miocene (25–13 million years ago) brown coals of the Gippsland Basin in southern Victoria, Australia, were deposited in peat mega-swamps, unlike any in the world at the present day. The swamps preserve a rich botanical suite of macro- and microfossils, many of which can be identified with plant genera and families present today in Australia, New Caledonia, New Zealand and New Guinea. The peat-forming environments also preserve evidence of past burning in the form of micro-charcoal as well as macro-charcoal, the latter being evident as regional lenses or layers of fusinite, generally in coals of the darkest colour termed dark lithotypes. The presence of micro-charcoal in dark and some other lighter lithotypes indicated that fires also burnt locally, although they may have been extinguished before regional-scale burning occurred. It is also feasible that some peat mega-swamp plant communities dominated by rainforest angiosperm plants may have been fire excluders and prevented widespread fires from developing. Pollen and macrofossil evidence is presented of a distinctive southern conifer and angiosperm flora with an open canopy, primarily associated with the darkest coals that formed in the wettest parts of the peat-forming environment. Elsewhere, swamp forests with a large rainforest component grew on swamps raised appreciably above the regional groundwater table in a structural context akin to the ombrogenous peats of tropical coastal Sumatra and Sarawak. These vegetation types were not fire prone, but may have occasionally burnt at a local scale or at forest margins. Evidence is presented for the existence of seasonal climatic conditions that would appear to have facilitated a drying-out of the peat swamps in the warmest months of the year. A mesothermal climate was invoked where mean annual precipitation was at least 1500 mm, and possibly as much as 2000 mm, and mean annual temperatures were ~19°C.

Additional keywords: brown coal, floras, Gippsland Basin, palaeoclimates.


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