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


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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TPRG in PAGES Magazine

The latest edition of the Past Global Changes (PAGES) Magazine was published yesterday, on the theme of ‘Sustaining Earth’s Biodiversity’, and it features three contributions from the TPRG team.

The sites discussed in Maca and Bronwen’s article, and their main plant species

The first, by Macarena and Northumbria University’s Bronwen Whitney, looks at how palaeoecology can shed light on the legacies of pre-Columbian people in Latin America’s modern ecosystems. It highlights Maca’s research on southern Brazil’s unique and ancient Araucaria forests (which has been part of the Jê Landscapes project, and which I’m continuing for my PhD), as well as Mayan breadnut palms in central America, and the chocolate forest islands and ice-cream bean cultivation of south-western Amazonia. It’s well worth a read, as are the research papers it discusses.

Heather also has two contributions in a mini-section reflecting on the PAGES Young Scientists’ Meeting 2017, an event she’s blogged about previously here (Palaeo-science in the Pyrenees). Her first article addresses the whys and (perhaps more importantly) hows of effective communication for palaeoscientists. Her second – equally important and closely linked – discusses the challenges of communicating the societal relevance of palaeo research, especially to funders and policymakers. Communicating research and its relevance is essential, and the insights and suggestions in these articles should be helpful starting points when considering it.

If you’ve got any questions or comments about the pieces, you can get in touch with Maca and Heather on twitter: @DrMacarenaLC and @HeatherPlumpton. The whole magazine edition can be read or downloaded here.



Ancient human impacts in Amazonia – the debate continues…

How well can you ever really know 5.5 million km2 of hyperdiverse forest? The Amazon region, and this question, are at the heart of several ongoing debates in the natural sciences – why are there so many species? how much carbon can the forest store? how much did ancient humans impact the forests, and can we still see their effects today?

How fully can you really know a forest as huge and diverse as the Amazon?

This last question was the subject of a paper by Caroline Levis and colleagues published in the prestigious journal Science in March this year, which caused significant ripples within and outside the scientific community. In a nutshell, the article found that tree species humans have cared for are five times more likely to be forest ‘hyperdominants’ than you’d expect. Past human impacts also help explain where these species are found now, accounting for up to 20% of the variation in their distribution (for comparison, environmental factors explained up to 30%). The paper’s conclusion, as picked up by the media, is that “modern tree communities in Amazonia are structured to an important extent by a long history of domestication by Amazonian peoples.”

So, debate settled? Not quite.

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Thoughts on PAGES OSM- with photographic evidence

I am aware that not many people had the great opportunity like me to attend PAGES OSM 2017. Therefore, I wanted to share some of the key things that got stuck with me after the conference.



There was an outstanding list of presentations and strong sessions. I am not aiming to pick a favourite, but I would like to highlight the following ones: “From the Mediterranean to the Caspian: paleoclimate variability, environmental responses and human adaptative strategies” with convener Ana Moreno et al, “Do species move or die” with convener N. Whitehouse et al, and specially “Disturbance dynamics across special and temporal scales” with convener Graciela Gil-Romera et al. Papers discussed there were largely multidisciplinary, and generated good discussions.

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Palaeo-science in the Pyrenees at PAGES YSM 2017

Morillo de Tou – the beautiful location of the YSM

I recently attend the PAGES (Past Global Changes) YSM (Young Scientists Meeting) as well as the OSM (Open Science Meeting) 2017 in sunny Spain. The YSM was particularly exciting – a group of 80 early career researchers met in the Pyrenees, at the restored village of Morillo de Tou.

Morillo de Tou

Morillo de Tou


The spectacular surroundings were matched by spectacular science, with a combination of great talks and posters as well as breakout group discussions and workshops. The schedule was pretty packed, but we made time for some star gazing with local astronomers and a night of traditional Aragon music and “dancing” in the moonlight. Overall, I thought the YSM was an excellent opportunity to meet other young scientists, and discuss issues of particular import to our community.

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