Ecological consequences of early Late Pleistocene megadroughts in tropical Africa

Andrew S. Cohen, Jeffery R. Stone, Kristina R.M. Beuning, Lisa E. Park, Peter N. Reinthal, David Dettman, Christopher A. Scholz, Thomas C. Johnson, John W. King, Michael R. Talbot, Erik T. Brown, Sarah J. Ivory

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

233 Scopus citations


Extremely arid conditions in tropical Africa occurred in several discrete episodes between 135 and 90 ka, as demonstrated by lake core and seismic records from multiple basins [Scholz CA, Johnson TC, Cohen AS, King JW, Peck J, Overpeck JT, Talbot MR, Brown ET, Kalindekafe L, Amoako PYO, et al. (2007) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104:16416-16421]. This resulted in extraordinarily low lake levels, even in Africa's deepest lakes. On the basis of well dated paleoecological records from Lake Malawi, which reflect both local and regional conditions, we show that this aridity had severe consequences for terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. During the most arid phase, there was extremely low pollen production and limited charred-particle deposition, indicating insufficient vegetation to maintain substantial fires, and the Lake Malawi watershed experienced cool, semidesert conditions (<400 mm/yr precipitation). Fossil and sedimentological data show that Lake Malawi itself, currently 706 m deep, was reduced to an ≈125 m deep saline, alkaline, well mixed lake. This episode of aridity was far more extreme than any experienced in the Afrotropics during the Last Glacial Maximum (≈35-15 ka). Aridity diminished after 95 ka, lake levels rose erratically, and salinity/alkalinity declined, reaching near-modern conditions after 60 ka. This record of lake levels and changing limnological conditions provides a framework for interpreting the evolution of the Lake Malawi fish and invertebrate species flocks. Moreover, this record, coupled with other regional records of early Late Pleistocene aridity, places new constraints on models of Afrotropical biogeographic refugia and early modern human population expansion into and out of tropical Africa.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)16422-16427
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number42
StatePublished - Oct 16 2007


  • Cichlid evolution
  • Lake Malawi
  • Out-of-Africa hypothesis
  • Paleoclimate
  • Paleolimnology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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