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Life Before Humans – The Azorean Laurissilva Forest

A study by the Madeira Botanical Group (GBM) at the Faculty of Life Sciences of the University of Madeira (FCV-UMa), carried out on Faial Island, Azores, has corroborated the historical observations of the first chroniclers, who affirmed the great abundance Ginjeira brava ( Prunus azorica ).  A tree that is extremely rare in the Azores.

Between the years 700-1100 AD, a volcanic eruption occurred on the island of Faial. During this time a burning cloud, with temperatures exceeding 235ºC smothered half of the island burying and charring the forests that lay beneath it.

The fieldwork carried out in 2016 by Carlos Góis-Marques, from GBM, in Faial Island, allowed the collection of several charred trunks which contained deposits of this eruption. The study of the plant anatomy of these charred trunks by optical and scanning electron microscopy allowed the identification of seven trees and shrubs that currently exist in the Azores.

Among the fossils found were the charred trunks of Ginjeira brava ( Prunus azorica ). This finding corroborates the historical observations of the early chroniclers, who affirmed the great abundance of this tree in the Azores and mentioned numerous times in the texts of both Gaspar Frutuoso (Portuguese Priest, historian and humanist (1590)) and Valentim Fernandes (a printer, writer and translator of classical texts(1508)).

The rarity of this tree in the Azores Laurissilva is due to the vast destruction of the forest in the first centuries of colonisation of these islands, as man used the wood for construction, fuel and felled the trees to create open areas for agriculture and grazing.  The tree is also toxic to cattle, as chronicled by Gaspar Frutuoso in 1590.

Carlos Góis-Marques is a guest assistant at UMa and a PhD student in Geology at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon and the Dom Luiz Institute. María Fernández-Palacios (University of La Laguna) and by Miguel Menezes de Sequeira (FCV-UMa). The doctorate is funded by ARDITI – Regional Agency for the Development of Research, Technology and Innovation.

The study, to be published in the scientific journal ” Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology ” (ELSEVIER), in the February 2020 issue, was supported by researchers from the Department of Geology of the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon, Polytechnic University of Lisbon. Madrid and the Group of Ecology and Island Biogeography of the University of La Laguna, and focused on a multidisciplinary approach involving Volcanology, Paleontology, Taxonomy and Plant Anatomy and History. To read the full article, please visit https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1a3Q37uTvVLBo .

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