Welcome to our website! We’re the University of Reading’s Tropical Palaeoecology Research Group. Here you can find out more about us – who we are and what we do – as well as what research projects we’re currently working on. You can also explore our recent publications, and the impacts they’ve made beyond the scientific community. Have a look at our blog posts below to learn more about what we’re up to at the moment, and feel free to get in touch with us if you want to learn more about us and our research.

The TPRG team


Fossil pollen at the Royal Institution

When was the last time you looked around you and wondered, ‘How on Earth did I get here?!’

I had one of those moments – possibly the biggest of my career so far – on April the 10th, in the Royal Institution‘s iconic lecture theatre. In one sense I knew the answer (from Kent via Victoria and Green Park underground station), but even now, two weeks after the event, I’m still trying to wrap my head around how I came to talk about my PhD research from the same spot as such renowned science communicators as David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan.

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‘Backwards research’ to move forwards with policy

This post originally appeared on the Walker Institute community blog: http://www.walker.ac.uk/news-events/backwards-research-to-move-forwards-with-policy/

Just before Christmas last year I was offered a place on the first Climate Services Academy Training (CSAT) programme. As someone who has been interested in the science-policy interface for a long time, particularly around climate issues, I was delighted with my early Christmas present from the Walker Institute (@WalkerInst on Twitter).

When the programme kicked off in mid-January, I knew I was in for a treat. The first two weeks were spent at the University of Reading where we were taken on a whirlwind tour of the topics we’d need to understand to work on ‘climate services’ (think ecosystem services, but for the climate). Topics included communication for development, international risk management law and governance, livelihoods analysis, politics and political economy, and knowledge exchange. This was followed up by a week of intense ‘scenario days’ where we were given a real-life climate or environment related issue that is currently ongoing in one of the programme’s partner countries (Senegal, Malawi, Ghana and Uganda) to read up on and report back on at the end of the day. I learnt an enormous amount in those two weeks, but we were just getting started.

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A Jungian take on tropical forest palaeoecology (part 2)

(This is part 2 of a 2-part post where a Jungian psychological approach is taken to analysing the history of the West’s relationship with the Amazon rainforest. I recommend you read part 1 if you have not already done so.)

In the late 19th century thinkers like Muir and Thoreau fused insights from Eastern philosophy, Romanticism and natural science, sparking a public interest in ecosystems as spiritual and leisurely places. President Roosevelt established the National Parks system, officially designating certain landscapes as protected wilderness. Designations were partly pragmatic decisions to conserve resources but perhaps more importantly made on a landscapes ability to ignite the feeling of awe. Yellowstone National Park was the first wilderness protected area in the world, but the model spread rapidly across the globe making its way to the Amazon. From this combination of ideas rose the applied science of biological conservation. In the same way Amazonia became the archetypal frontier to Imperial expansionists due to its size and vegetative fecundity, it became the ultimate wilderness in need of protection, in the minds of the conservationists.  

Roosevelt and Muir stand on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park (1906).

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A Jungian take on tropical forest palaeoecology (part 1)

Humans throughout history have dedicated immense amounts of energy to understanding forests. When we think of human-forest interactions, often cited are the direct products we take from forests, the indirect benefits environmental services and the issues of sustainability. Yet rarely mentioned is the psychological relationship we have with the forests and the potential implications on forest management. In this blog I take a mythological Jungian approach in analysing the history of Tropical Palaeoecology, so we might better understand the unique psychological link that the West shares with Amazonia. This blog is part 1 of 2. It is a briefing of my ideas and as a result touches only shallowly on the highlights of my thinking. I hope to go deeper into these thoughts in future blogs.

The way we perceive the world has been shaped by our evolutionary history within and later outside of the forest environment. In negotiating trees, we started to see in three dimensions, so we would not fall from branches. It was only when leaving the forest that we broke free of our primate shackles, stood upright and became Homo sapiens. As a result, the dualistic nature of the forest as both a nurturer and tyrant are burnt deep into our subconscious.   

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Collaboration and training in Exeter and Southampton

Last month I was lucky enough to undertake a phytolith training placement at the University of Exeter in the Department of Archaeology, working with my second PhD supervisor, Professor Jose Iriarte, and his project team, PAST (Pre-Columbian Amazonian Scale Transformations).

During my four-week stay in Exeter, I processed and extracted phytoliths from a soil profile in the Upper Tapajos Basin of the Amazon, associated with a ditch enclosure. Once extracted, I then analysed and got training in the identification of the phytoliths. The phytolith extraction process can be quite lengthy and so it was great to have a lot of time to work through each of the stages properly. I had previously done some phytolith extractions for my master’s dissertation, however, I wanted to learn the methodology most suited to the tropics and South American samples.

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Reflecting on a year in outreach – Plant Fascination, STEM clubs, 3MT and IASUK

I’ve found science fascinating for a great many years, and one of the things I enjoy most in life is helping others to catch some of that fascination for themselves. It’s a big part of the reason why I became a teacher before I started my PhD, and I’m so glad that science communication and outreach opportunities have continued to appear since then – after all, research shows it’s good for you, and for others. In this post, I want to reflect on some of the outreach fun I’ve had in the last year, and maybe encourage you to have a go too!

Fascination of Plants Day 2017 – the event that kicked it all off…

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New TPR paper: Impact of mid- to late Holocene precipitation changes on vegetation across lowland tropical South America: a paleo-data synthesis

By Richard Smith

Hello, and happy new year! In this blog post I’d like to briefly tell you about my first paper that was accepted and published in the journal Quaternary Research in late 2017.  It’s entitled “Impact of mid- to late Holocene precipitation changes on vegetation across lowland tropical South America: a paleo-data synthesis” and can be found here.

In late 2016, Frank was approached by Mark Bush who wanted to prepare a collection of papers for a ‘special issue’ to honour the lives of two prominent palaeoecologists, Prof. Paul Colinvaux (1930-2016) and Prof. Daniel Livingstone (1927-2016).  Both Paul and Daniel were leading figures in tropical palaeoecology, with Paul focusing predominantly on tropical South America and Daniel in tropical Africa.  Throughout their careers, they were at the forefront of much of the breakthroughs in tropical palaeoecology, as well as inspiring and training many graduate students to create an international legacy of palaeoecologists. More can be read about their amazing careers in Mark Bush and Will Gosling’s tribute article: “In search of the ice age tropics, a tribute to Prof. Daniel Livingstone and Prof. Paul Colinvaux”. 

(a) Dan Livingstone (photo courtesy of Duke University). (b) Paul Colinvaux at El Junco Crater Lake, Galapagos Islands (photo courtesy of Miriam Steinitz-Kannan). [From Bush & Gosling, 2018]

Given the focus as Paul and Daniel’s careers, the special issue was to focus on South American and Africa palaeoecology.  Frank suggested that I take this opportunity to write a paper to submit to this special issue on some work I had completed previously, synthesising existing palaeoecological data from across tropical South America from the mid-Holocene to the present. So that is what I did! Continue reading

All change please

September is nearly over, the trees and weather have decided to get autumn underway, and campus is again buzzing as thousands of new and returning students arrive for the start of a new term. It seems like an appropriate time to reflect on a summer of changes here in the TPRG.

The first change, and possibly the biggest, was Macarena leaving us for pastures new at Earthwatch in Oxford. Since starting her post-doctoral research post in 2014, Maca had been a popular and integral part of many areas in SAGES (the School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Sciences) – to say nothing of her roles in the TPRG, managing the lab and running the blog. Small wonder, then, that so many people came to her farewell celebration!

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