The transformation of Sonoran Desert wetlands following the historic decrease of burning

Owen K. Davis, Tom Minckley, Tom Moutoux, Tim Jull, Bob Kalin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations

Abstract

The analysis of sediments from six wetlands (cienegas) in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, U.S.A., and Sonora, Mexico, document a marked expansion of wetland taxa-particularly woody plants-about 200 years ago at the beginning of the historic period, following a decrease in charcoal percentages and increased percentages of the dung fungus Sporormiella. The presence of charred seeds and fruits of wetland plants in prehistoric sediment establishes burning of the cienega itself. The charcoal decline ca. 250 years ago precedes the first occurrence of the pollen exotic plants at several sites, the change of cienega sediment from silt to peat, and the increase of percentages of the decay fungus Tetraploa. We conclude that prior to the historic period, burning was frequent enough to exclude most woody plants (Celtis, Cephalanthus, Populus, Fraxinus, Salix) from the wetlands and suppress the abundance of bulrush (Scirpus). The cienegas were probably burned seasonally as a management tool to harvest animals and promote agriculture. Prehistoric agricultural utilization of the cienegas is demonstrated by the presence of corn (Zea) and pre-Columbian weeds. This study also records postsettlement (ca. 200 years ago) change of upland vegetation; i.e. an increase in the abundance of Juniperus, Quercus, Larrea, and Prosopis pollen. Historic fire suppression may have permitted the expansion of these non-wetland woody species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)393-412
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Arid Environments
Volume50
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Mar 2002

Keywords

  • Archeology
  • Burning
  • Land use
  • Palynology
  • Sonoran Desert
  • Vegetation change
  • Wetlands

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Earth-Surface Processes

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