Pacific Kelp Forests are Far Older Than We Thought
Published:21 Mar.2024    Source:University of California - Berkeley

The unique underwater kelp forests that line the Pacific Coast support a varied ecosystem that was thought to have evolved along with the kelp over the past 14 million years. But a new study shows that kelp flourished off the Northwest Coast more than 32 million years ago, long before the appearance of modern groups of marine mammals, sea urchins, birds and bivalves that today call the forests home.


Evidence for the greater antiquity of kelp forests, reported this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, comes from newly discovered fossils of the kelp's holdfast -- the root-like part of the kelp that anchors it to rocks or rock-bound organisms on the seafloor. The stipe, or stem, attaches to the holdfast and supports the blades, which typically float in the water, thanks to air bladders.


According to Kiel and Looy, who is the senior author of the paper and UCMP curator of paleobotany, these early kelp forests were likely not as complex as the forests that evolved by about 14 million years ago. Fossils from the late Cenozoic along the Pacific Coast indicate an abundance of bivalves -- clams, oysters and mussels -- birds and sea mammals, including sirenians related to manatees and extinct, bear-like predecessors of the sea otter, called Kolponomos. Such diversity is not found in the fossil record from 32 million years ago.