Understanding Paleoclimate Through Southern California’s Packrat Middens


  • Elizabeth L. Austin Middlebury College
  • Alexis M. Mychajliw Middlebury College




Neotoma, Paleoclimate, SoCal, La Brea Tar Pits, Vegetation


Documenting how ecosystems responded to climate change in the past can inform models for the future relevant to conservation decision-making. Packrat middens, or giant nests consisting of gathered plant material made by rodents of the genus Neotoma, represent one of the best data sources for understanding how plant communities change over time. These nests can be preserved for thousands of years, spanning episodes of glacial-interglacial variation, such as the Pleistocene-Holocene transition, or more recent fluctuations, such as the Little Ice Age and Medieval Warm Period. We used the USGS-NOAA paleoclimate open-access database to develop spatiotemporal reconstructions of plant species in Southern California, incorporating more than 242 individual middens with a total of 193 available radiocarbon dates spanning around 44,493 years cal BP. As a result, 374 plant species were identified within the SoCal middens, with Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia), Joint Pine (Ephedra species), and California Juniper (Juniperus californica) being the most abundant. We then applied these data to reconstruct past vegetation communities and contextualize a recently discovered asphaltic midden recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits (Los Angeles, California). The La Brea midden represents both the oldest and most coastal midden in our dataset in California and contains vegetation spanning Marine Isotope Stages 2-3. Ultimately, this research allows us to paint a picture of changing vegetation over time as a baseline for palaeoecological food web studies and can be compared with present day packrat nests found in this urban biodiversity hotspot. These data will be curated through the Conservation Paleobiology Network’s urban vegetation working group (based in Los Angeles, California) and made available for use by conservation and management projects throughout the region. With this information, CPN can implement habitat restoration projects in SoCal.

Journal cover with title Bulletin of the Florida Museum of Natural History and a photograph of a great blue heron




How to Cite

Austin, E., & Mychajliw, A. (2023). Understanding Paleoclimate Through Southern California’s Packrat Middens. Bulletin of the Florida Museum of Natural History, 60(2), 61. https://doi.org/10.58782/flmnh.dhkb7794