Fire and the spread of flowering plants in the Cretaceous


Author for correspondence:
William J. Bond
Tel: +27 21 650 2439


  • We suggest that the spread of angiosperms in the Cretaceous was facilitated by novel fire regimes. Angiosperms were capable of high productivity and therefore accumulated flammable biomass (‘fuel’) more rapidly than their predecessors. They were capable of rapid reproduction, allowing populations to spread despite frequent disturbance.
  • We evaluate the evidence for physical conditions conducive to fires in the Cretaceous. These included high temperatures, seasonally dry climate and higher atmospheric oxygen than current levels. We evaluate novel properties of angiosperms that contributed to rapid biomass accumulation, and to their ability to thrive in frequently disturbed environments. We also review direct evidence for Cretaceous fires.
  • Charcoal mesofossils are common in Cretaceous deposits of the Northern Hemisphere. Inertinite, the charcoal component of coal, is common throughout the Cretaceous and into the Palaeocene, but declined steeply from the Eocene when angiosperm-dominated forests became widespread.
  • Direct and indirect evidence is consistent with angiosperms initiating novel fire regimes, promoting angiosperm spread in the Cretaceous. Several traits are consistent with frequent surface fires. We suggest that forest was slow to develop until the Eocene, when fire activity dropped to very low levels. The causes and consequences of fires in the deep past warrant greater attention.