For a detailed reconstruction of historic upper forest line (UFL) positions, new proxies in addition to traditional pollen and vegetation analyses are needed. If the straight-chain lipid composition in plant leaves and roots is specific enough to allow distinction, their records in soils and peat bogs might be used for this purpose. We tested for such distinctiveness by analyzing the n-alkane, n-alcohol, n-aldehyde and wax ester composition in lipid extracts from the leaves and roots of the 19 plant species responsible for the dominant biomass input into soils and peat bogs along two altitudinal transects in the Ecuadorian Andes. We found the combined n-alkane and n-alcohol composition of the leaves of the studied plants to be unique enough in theory to allow for a distinction of the various plant species. The extractable straight-chain lipid concentrations in the roots were generally much lower than in the leaves of the same species, and were in many cases less specific. The n-fatty acids, n-aldehydes and wax ester compositions in leaves as well as roots appeared to be less suited as biomarkers, due to a lower specificity of the n-fatty acids and the absence of the n-aldehydes and wax ester from a significant number of plant species. Furthermore, using cluster analysis we found the combination of n-alkanes and n-alcohols from leaves to give the most meaningful clustering from the point of view of an UFL reconstruction, with all but one páramo grassland species and all but one peat bog species clustering separately from forest species. In addition, a large C31/C27 n-alkane ratio as well as a large C26/C30 n-alcohol ratio were found to be indicative of páramo vegetation (grasses). Both clustering and ratios can help reconstruct past UFL positions if discerning individual species from soil or peat records proves unfeasible. The preservation of the straight-chain lipid signal was tested in soil and peat samples from the study area predating 4910 ± 40 14C years B.P. and 2110 ± 40 14C years B.P., respectively, and found to be excellent.
- extractable lipids
- forest soil