Keep your feet warm? {A} cryptic refugium of trees linked to a geothermal spring in an ocean of glaciers

Up to now, the most widely accepted idea of the periglacial environment is that of treeless ecosystems such as the arctic or the alpine tundra, also called the tabula rasa paradigm. However, several palaeoecological studies have recently challenged this idea, that is, treeless environments in periglacial areas where all organisms would have been exterminated near the glacier formed during the Last Glacial Maximum, notably in the Scandinavian mountains. In the Alps, the issue of glacial refugia of trees remains unanswered. Advances in glacier reconstructions show that ice domes did not cover all upper massifs, but glaciers filled valleys. Here, we used fossils of plant and malacofauna from a travertine formation located in a high mountain region to demonstrate that trees (Pinus, Betula) grew with grasses during the Lateglacial-Holocene transition, while the glacier fronts were 200–300 m lower. The geothermal travertine started to accumulate more than 14,500 years ago, but became progressively more meteogene about 11,500 years ago due to a change in groundwater circulation. With trees, land snails (gastropods) associated to woody or open habitats and aquatic mollusc were also present at the onset of the current interglacial, namely the Holocene. The geothermal spring, due to warm water and soil, probably favoured woody glacial ecosystems. This new finding of early tree growth, combined with other scattered proofs of the tree presence before 11,000 years ago in the western Alps, changes our view of the tree distribution in periglacial environments, supporting the notion of tree refugia on nunataks in an ocean of glaciers. Therefore, the tabula rasa paradigm must be revisited because it has important consequences on the global changes, including postglacial plant migrations and biogeochemical cycles.


Keep your feet warm? {A} cryptic refugium of trees linked to a geothermal spring in an ocean of glaciers
Publication Type
Journal Article
Year of Publication
Global Change Biology
CNRS, Lautaret
Submitted on 21 October 2021