Aim To document the impact of late Quaternary pluvial events on plant movements between the coast and the Andes across the Atacama Desert, northern Chile.
Location Sites are located along the lower and upper fringes of absolute desert (1100–2800 m a.s.l.), between the western slope of the Andes and the Coastal Ranges of northern Chile (24–26° S).
Methods We collected and individually radiocarbon dated 21 rodent middens. Plant macrofossils (fruits, seeds, flowers and leaves) were identified and pollen content analysed. Midden assemblages afford brief snapshots of local plant communities that existed within the rodents’ limited foraging range during the several years to decades that it took the midden to accumulate. These assemblages were then compared with modern floras to determine the presence of extralocal species and species provenance.
Results Five middens span the last glacial period (34–21 ka) and three middens are from the last glacial–interglacial transition (19–11 ka). The remaining 13 middens span the last 7000 years. Coastal hyperarid sites exhibit low taxonomic richness in middens at 19.3, 1.1, 1.0, 0.9, 0.5 ka and a modern sample. Middens are also dominated by the same plants that occur today. In contrast, middens dated to 28.1, 21.3, 17.3, 3.7 and 0.5 ka contain more species, including Andean extralocals. Precordillera middens (c. 2700 m) show a prominent increase in plant macrofossil richness, along with the appearance of Andean extralocals and sedges at 34.5 and 18.9 ka. Six younger middens dated to 6.1–0.1 ka are similar to the modern local vegetation.
Main conclusions Increased species richness and Andean extralocal plants occurred along the current lower fringes of absolute desert during the last glacial–interglacial transition and late Holocene. The absence of soil carbonates indicates the persistence of absolute desert throughout the Quaternary. Colonization by Andean plants could have been accomplished through long-distance seed dispersal either by animals or floods that originated in the Andes. We postulate that dispersal would have been most frequent during regional pluvial events and associated increases in groundwater levels, forming local wetlands in the absolute desert, and generating large floods capable of crossing the Central Depression.