Tropical South America has the highest plant diversity of any region today, but this richness is usually characterized as a geologically recent development (Neogene or Pleistocene). From caldera-lake beds exposed at Laguna del Hunco in Patagonia, Argentina, paleolatitude ∼47°S, we report 102 leaf species. Radioisotopic and paleomagnetic analyses indicate that the flora was deposited 52 million years ago, the time of the early Eocene climatic optimum, when tropical plant taxa and warm, equable climates reached middle latitudes of both hemispheres. Adjusted for sample size, observed richness exceeds that of any other Eocene leaf flora, supporting an ancient history of high plant diversity in warm areas of South America.
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