The environmental and biotic history of the late Quaternary represents a critical junction between ecology, global change studies, and pre-Quaternary paleobiology. Late Quaternary records indicate the modes and mechanisms of environmental variation and biotic responses at timescales of 101–104 years. Climatic changes of the late Quaternary have occurred continuously across a wide range of temporal scales, with the magnitude of change generally increasing with time span. Responses of terrestrial plant populations have ranged from tolerance in situ to moderate shifts in habitat to migration and/or extinction, depending on magnitudes and rates of environmental change. Species assemblages have been disaggregated and recombined, forming a changing array of vegetation patterns on the landscape. These patterns of change are characteristic of terrestrial plants and animals but may not be representative of all other life-forms or habitats. Complexity of response, particularly extent of species recombination, depends in part on the nature of the underlying environmental gradients and how they change through time. Environmental gradients in certain habitats may change in relatively simple fashion, allowing long-term persistence of species associations and spatial patterns. Consideration of late Quaternary climatic changes indicates that both the rate and magnitude of climatic changes anticipated for the coming century are unprecedented, presenting unique challenges to the biota of the planet.
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Vol. 26 • No. sp4