Main content area

Holocene Paleoenvironments of Northeast Iowa

Baker, R. G., Bettis, E. A., III, Schwert, D. P., Horton, D. G., Chumbley, C. A., Gonzalez, L. A., Reagan, M. K.
Ecological monographs 1996 v.66 no.2 pp. 203-234
Acer saccharum, Ambrosia, Bryophyta, Carpinus caroliniana, Coleoptera, Holocene epoch, Ostrya virginiana, Picea, Poaceae, Quercus, Tilia americana, Ulmus, alluvium, basins, carbon, climate, climate change, deciduous forests, fauna, floodplains, forest habitats, grasslands, highlands, indigenous species, insects, land clearing, landscapes, mosses and liverworts, oxygen, paleoclimatology, paleoecology, palynology, pollen, savannas, seasonal variation, seeds, soil, stable isotopes, streams, temperature, vascular plants, water quality, woodlands, Iowa
This paper presents the biotic, sedimentary, geomorphic, and climatic history of the upper part of the Roberts Creek Basin, northeastern Iowa for the late—glacial and Holocene, and compares these records with a C—O isotopic sequence from Coldwater Cave, 60 km northwest of Roberts Creek. The biotic record (pollen, vascular plant and bryophyte macrofossils, and insects) is preserved in floodplain alluvium that underlies three constructional surfaces separated by low scarps. Each surface is underlain by a lithologically and temporally distinct alluvial fill. The highest surface is underlain by the Gunder Member of the Deforest Formation, dating from 11 000 to 4000 yr BP; beneath the intermediate level is the Roberts Creek Member, dating from 4000 to 400 yr BP; and the lowest level is underlain by the Camp Creek Member, deposited during the last 380 yr. Pollen and plant macrofossils in the alluvial fill show that a typical late—glacial spruce forest was replaced by Quercus and Ulmus in the early Holocene. This early—to—middle Holocene forest became dominated by mesic elements such as Acer saccharum, Tilia americana, Ostrya virginiana, and Carpinus caroliniana as late as 5500 yr BP; in contrast, the closest sites to the west and north were at their warmest and driest and were covered by prairie vegetation between 6500 and 5500 yr BP. After 5500 yr BP, the forest in the Roberts Creek area was replaced by prairie, as indicated by a rich assemblage of plant macrofossils, although only Ambrosia and Poaceae became abundant in the pollen record. The return of Quercus ≈ 3000 BP (while nonarboreal pollen percentages remained relatively high) indicates that oak savanna prevailed with little change until settlement time. The bryophyte assemblages strongly support the vascular plant record. Rich fen species characteristic of boreal habitats occur only in the late—glacial. They are replaced by a number of deciduous—forest elements when early—to—middle Holocene forests were present, but mosses of forest habitats completely disappear when prairie became dominant. A few deciduous—forest taxa return during the late—Holocene, when oak savanna prevailed. The C—O isotopic record from stalagmite ₛ in Coldwater Cave indicates a relatively stable environment from ≈ 8000 to 5100 yr BP, when the δ¹³C values indicate a change in vegetation dominated by C₃ (predominantly forest) to C₄ (predominantly prairie) plants. About 4900 yr BP, the rise in ¹⁸O values indicates a temperature increase of ≈ 1.5°C. The fact that the vegetational change suggested by the δ¹³C values preceded the temperature increase suggests that fire may have been an important factor in converting forest to prairie. Abundant charred seeds and other plant material at Roberts Creek 4830 yr BP support this hypothesis. The ¹⁸O values remain constant from ≈ 5100 to ≈ 3000 yr BP, but the δ¹³C values gradually rise, indicating that soil formed under forest takes at least 2000 yr for its carbon to reach equilibrium after replacement by prairie vegetation. The return of oak to form savanna is reflected in the gradual decline of δ¹³C values in the last 3000 yr BP; O isotopic values drop sharply by ≈ 1°C ≈ 2800 yr BP and then were relatively stable. In contrast to the vegetational and isotopic records, the insect assemblages suggest little change in the local environments throughout most of the Holocene. All of the beetle taxa presently occur in eastern Iowa. The relative stability through the Holocene indicates that both open grassland and riparian woodland elements were present throughout. Settlement, land clearing, and land cultivation by EuroAmericans in the region caused rapid erosion of the upland landscape, the deposition of 1—2 m of sediment across the floodplain, a replacement of the native vegetation with ruderal species, a decimation of the native insect fauna, and a degradation of water quality in the stream. These changes in the landscape, vegetation, and insect faunas are as striking as those associated with glacial—interglacial transitions. The timing and direction of changes in the vegetation at Roberts Creek generally correlate well with the carbon and oxygen isotopic record in speleothems at nearby Coldwater Cave and indicate that climate was the main forcing function. However, the contrast between the vegetational change and the stability of the beetle population suggests that climatic changes were subtle. We hypothesize that the factors involved in the Holocene changes were seasonal changes in temperature and precipitation that may not have resulted in much mean annual change. Such changes may have affected the vegetation more than the insect fauna.