Composition of continental crust altered by the emergence of land plants

Christopher Spencer* (Corresponding Author), Neil Davies, Thomas M. Gernon, Xi Wang, William McMahon, Taylor Rae Morrell, Thea Hincks, Peir Pufahl, Alexander Brasier, Marina Seraine, Gui-Mei Lu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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The evolution of land plants during the Palaeozoic Era transformed Earth’s biosphere. Because the Earth's surface and interior are linked by tectonic processes, the linked evolution of the biosphere and sedimentary rocks should be recorded as a near contemporary shift in the composition of the continental crust. To test this hypothesis, we assessed the isotopic signatures of zircon formed at subduction zones where marine sediments are transported into the mantle, thereby recording interactions between surface environments and the deep Earth. Using oxygen and lutetium-hafnium isotopes of magmatic zircon that respectively track surface weathering (time-independent) and radiogenic decay (time-dependent), we find a correlation in the composition of continental
crust after 430 Myr ago, which is coeval with the onset of enhanced complexity and stability in sedimentary systems related to the evolution of vascular plants. The expansion of terrestrial vegetation brought channelled sand-bed and meandering rivers, muddy floodplains, and thicker soils, lengthening the duration of weathering before final marine deposition. Collectively, our results suggest that the evolution of vascular plants coupled the degree of weathering and timescales of sediment routing to depositional basins where they were subsequently subducted and melted. The late Palaeozoic isotopic shift of zircon
indicates that the greening of the continents was recorded in the deep Earth.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)735-740
Number of pages14
JournalNature Geoscience
Early online date29 Aug 2022
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2022

Bibliographical note

This paper benefited greatly from discussions with B. Keller. C.J.S., X.W. and M.S. were supported by the Natural Sciences and Environment Research Council, Discovery Grant RGPIN-2020-05639. T.R.I.M. was supported by the Natural Sciences and Environment Research Council, Undergraduate Student Research Award 551207 – 2020 with additional funding provided by L. Godin. T.M.G. and T.H. were supported by the Turing Institute under the EPSRC grant EP/N510129/1. N.S.D. and W.J.M. were supported by NERC grant NE/T00696X. G.-M.L. acknowledges support from the State Scholarship Fund of China Scholarship Council (202006410023).


  • Geochemistry
  • palaeontology
  • sedimentology
  • tectonics


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