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All data I have ever encountered about the Taiga "pole surrounding", vast, cold forests comprised mainly of Pinophyta trees, was about the northern pole surrounding forests ranging from northern Scandinavia and northern European Russia to northern Siberia and northern Canada.

Considering woodland of areas a little bit close to the southern pole, south Patagonia (extreme south of south america) reminds me a bit of the northern forests; the vegetation at and New Zealand and in Norfolk island (which might be mostly artificial in that island) a bit too, and perhaps paleoentological findings about trees in Antarctica in the past will even more resemble a "Taiga".

At least by theoretical biology - could there be, or should there have been, or was a "southern Taiga" on earth?

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  • $\begingroup$ Certainly, if there was land at the appropriate southern latitudes. Consider the similarity of mountain vegetation around timberline. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 25 '19 at 4:37
  • $\begingroup$ Good question. I have indeed read about fossil forests from past continental arrangements (Gondwana-times) in today's Antarctica and Australia. But everything has changed since then, plants, climate, continents. So, no, something like todays boreal forests did not exist. But something different in a similar environment, sure. $\endgroup$
    – user18411
    Dec 26 '19 at 9:50
  • $\begingroup$ Given that taigas are largely composed of coniferous trees, the Wollemia pine, discovered in Australia in 1994 (regarded as a Lazarus taxon) may be the last remnants of such a forest if it existed during the Cretaceous period. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Dec 26 '19 at 10:37
  • $\begingroup$ Suggestion not to confuse continental climate with long harsh winters (today's taiga) with oceanic climate with short moderate summers and relatively mild winters ("Tierra del Fuego"). For each given case of fossil woods or pollen a climate reconstruction as good as possible should be taken into account. That is not trivial ... $\endgroup$
    – user18411
    Dec 27 '19 at 10:16
  • $\begingroup$ Hand in hand with @ebv's suggestion is to not confuse high altitude forests that have long harsh winters with high latitude forests with a similar temperature range. The high latitude forests also have to deal with highly diminished lighting, a problem not confronted by low latitude, high altitude forests. $\endgroup$ Dec 27 '19 at 18:42
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I'll define a boreal forest as a place that

  1. Has trees, i.e., long-lived woody plants that are capable of growing at least ten meters tall and that grow both upward by extending new branches and outward by widening of the trunk. Amongst other things, this rules out times before ~380 million years ago, which was when the first trees formed.
  2. Has sufficient trees so as to constitute a forest, which I'll define as a largish area where trees grow sufficiently dense so as to form a more or less closed canopy. This distinguishes forests from areas with only a few trees such as savannas and krummholz.
  3. Has very harsh winters, with at least one month where the average temperature is well below freezing, and temperatures of -40° C are not rare. This distinguishes boreal forests from cold oceanic forests such as the Magellanic subpolar forests in southern Chile and Argentina.
  4. Has mild summers, with only a few months where the average temperature exceeds 10° C. This distinguishes boreal forests from hemiboreal and temperate forests. Note that some scientists do not make this distinction, classifying Köppen climate zone Dfb as boreal.
  5. Is extensive. This distinguishes large boreal forests from high altitude subalpine forests that would locally pass the above tests. Subalpine forests can occur at any latitude, including Australia's Snow Mountains, New Zealand's Southern Alps, and parts of the Andes. This is not a clear-cut boundary. As a climate cools, subalpine forests may spread to the valleys between mountains and then spread out beyond the mountains. At some point, such montane forests becomes boreal forests.

The need for very harsh winters coupled with the need for extensiveness means that boreal forests did not exist between the start of the Triassic ~252 million years ago to the end of the Eocene ~34 million years ago. The Earth was in its greenhouse phase during that long stretch of time, with balmy temperatures year round even at the poles. A boreal forest can only exist when the Earth is in its icehouse phase. This includes the last 34 million years, and also the period between 340 to 250, the late Paleozoic glaciation. Unlike the current ice age, the Earth in the late Paleozoic had land (Gondwana) surrounding the South Pole.

The question then is whether either of those intervals (the last ~34 million years, and the late Paleozoic glaciation) have supported a southern boreal forest. Per Rees-Owens et al., the answer is a possible yes to the more recent interval. Forests existed on Antarctica until as recently as 2.5 million years ago. Whether these were Köppen climate zone Cfc (subpolar) or Dfc (continental boreal) is very hard to say. If one relaxes the requirement for cold winters a bit, then those recent forests almost certainly were boreal.

Per Horton, et al., and also per the authors of several related papers, the answer is an unequivocal yes to the more ancient interval. Moreover, the boreal forest of that ancient time would have been very much like the boreal forest of present time: One of the largest ecozones on the planet.


References:

Horton, D.E., Poulsen, C.J. and Pollard, D., 2010. Influence of high-latitude vegetation feedbacks on late Palaeozoic glacial cycles. Nature Geoscience, 3(8), p.572.

Pross, J., Contreras, L., Bijl, P.K., Greenwood, D.R., Bohaty, S.M., Schouten, S., Bendle, J.A., Röhl, U., Tauxe, L., Raine, J.I. and Huck, C.E., 2012. Persistent near-tropical warmth on the Antarctic continent during the early Eocene epoch. Nature, 488(7409), p.73.

Rees-Owen, R.L., Gill, F.L., Newton, R.J., Ivanović, R.F., Francis, J.E., Riding, J.B., Vane, C.H. and dos Santos, R.A.L., 2018. The last forests on Antarctica: Reconstructing flora and temperature from the Neogene Sirius Group, Transantarctic Mountains. Organic Geochemistry, 118, pp.4-14.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 nice start. I was thinking about something along that line: we'd have to look for an arrangement that allows for continental climate, i.e. before Antarctica and Australia separated. Then we're in a range where Taiga as we know it didn't exist simply because some taxa and their communities with other organisms didn't exist yet. The likely answer would then be "No, a Taiga like the one we know did not and does not exist in the southern hemisphere". Maybe something similar. The degree of similarness would have to be defined :-) $\endgroup$
    – user18411
    Dec 28 '19 at 10:39
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    $\begingroup$ @ebv - Thanks. What I wrote took good amount of research and a good amount of time, but it is only a "nice start". I'll be updating. Feel free to add your two bits. $$\\$$ The taiga of the late Paleozoic would have looked rather different from the taiga of the far north today for the simple reason that life has evolved since then. But in some regards it would have looked similar -- there were "trees" that formed extensive forests, and winters were expletive deleted harsh. $\endgroup$ Dec 28 '19 at 10:56
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There was a sort of southern taiga on the northern fringes of Antarctica about 40 million years ago in the early tertiary, but this was probably killed off by the increasingly cold weather some ten million years later. The taiga as we know it today is in the northern hemisphere and is composed mainly of conifers (taiga is a Russian word), but you wouldn't expect a taiga in the antipodes to be of the same species as in the northern hemisphere, or for there to be a Russian word for it. There were no contemporary Russians.

The southern taiga was composed of nothofagus trees, a hardy broadleaf also known as southern beech, and there is a relict population remaining in a ring extending from extreme S.America, S.Australia, and New Zealand. In the late cretaceous these continents were linked to Antarctica, but continental drift has since separated them. Fossil nothofagus wood, seeds and pollen have been found in Antarctica. There is also a relict population of nothofagus in montane New Guinea, but it is not known when it arrived there. As Fred suggests, the southern taiga may also have included Wollemia pine, but this has yet to be proved.

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    $\begingroup$ "There was a sort of southern taiga on the northern fringes of Antarctica about 40 million years ago in the early tertiary": as always, a source to support this assertion would be great. $\endgroup$ Dec 27 '19 at 7:34
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    $\begingroup$ That phrase makes no sense. The northern fringes are all araound, a "tertiary" does not exist (it's 2019), taiga is mongolian it seems. Nothofaguses exist also in tropical environments and anyway taiga is an inland biome. The answer needs to be reworked. It is not the others that need to be proved. $\endgroup$
    – user18411
    Dec 27 '19 at 9:47
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    $\begingroup$ This should not be the accepted answer. No references, and guesswork, and as written, wrong. 40 million years was the mid-Eocene; except in the highest altitude mountains Antarctica remained ice-free until the Eocene-Oligocene boundary 33 to 34 million years ago. 40 million years represents the transition from a subtropical Antarctic to a temperature one. $\endgroup$ Dec 27 '19 at 10:13
  • $\begingroup$ I recognize titans clashing, I withdraw. I am just a humble botany amateur. I should comeback later... $\endgroup$
    – user18552
    Dec 27 '19 at 11:05
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    $\begingroup$ This is a good question, IMO ! It is just not answered easily. A thorough answer would involve identifiying fossil remains and reconstruct the environment and climate at the time, just to eventually find out that things were too different to name them "southern taiga". Somebody may tackle it in the future (e.g. when it keeps on thawing ;-)). $\endgroup$
    – user18411
    Dec 27 '19 at 11:12

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