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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Jê group: Farmers and sedentary
This time, written by scientific journalist Marcos Pivetta, this article covers what has been discovered so far by the archaeological research within the project and gives a first glance of what has been found from the palaeoecological research performed by Macarena L. Cárdenas and Frank Mayle.
To read the whole article click here, available in Portuguese. Right hand click in the page to automatically translate in google.
About FAPESP: São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP, Portuguese: Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo) is a public foundation located in São Paulo, Brazil, with the aim of providing grants, funds and programs to support research, education and innovation of private and public institutions and companies in the state of São Paulo.
I just thought I’d have a little brag, and celebrate the fact that I have produced a tropical phytolith reference collection here at the University of Reading in the TPR lab. The full collection (as it stands until the next PhD student comes to help build it!) contains 152 taxa, sampled from various Herbaria around the world. My thanks go to Prof Jose Iriarté at the University of Exeter for lending me some of his material, as well as Dave Harris at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh who let Dr John Carson sample their herbarium and live specimens. The spread of taxa includes all those denoted as diagnostically useful by Piperno’s 2006 book ‘Phytoliths’ (the bible of tropical phytolith studies) plus some extras which may turn out to be useful.
The online database of our phytolith reference collection is now available on our Palaeobank website. Feel free to take a browse!
The ACC conference centre in Liverpool lit up at night – a great venue with excellent vegan food choices
Last week I attended my first British Ecological Society Annual Meeting and I still don’t think I’m fully recovered. With around 1200 delegates, 12 sessions running in parallel at any one time, lunchtime workshops and socials every night, it was a pretty intense experience. But of course it was worth all of the exhaustion; I met a lot of new people (as well as catching up with a few old friends), listened to some really great presentations, participated in several workshops, and got to present some early results of my own PhD work.
Millennial-Scale History of Amazon Forest Dynamics
Lead Supervisor: Francis E. Mayle, University of Reading, Department of Geography & Environmental Science, SAGES
Co-supervisors: Stuart Black, Department of Archaeology, SAGES; Shovonal Roy, Department of Geography & Environmental Science, SAGES
Studies of a network of 1-hectare forest plots across Amazonia have revealed significant ecological changes (e.g. increasing biomass) over recent decades, but whether they reflect atmospheric change (e.g. fertilization from rising CO2 concentrations), or instead secondary succession following pre-Columbian (pre-AD1492) human disturbance, is controversial. Furthermore, the likely impact of increasing drought over the 21st century, predicted by climate models, is also uncertain. A palaeoecological approach can potentially reveal the impact of mid-Holocene drought (a potential analogue for future drought) as well as Pre-Columbian land use. However, a major disadvantage with lake-based pollen analysis (the traditional palaeovegetation proxy) is that suitably old lakes are rare in Amazonia, and the spatial resolution of pollen records is generally far too coarse to enable meaningful comparison with ecological data from 1 ha plots. The aim of this project is to circumvent this problem by using a novel suite of palaeoecological proxies from soil profiles to reconstruct the millennial-scale vegetation histories of individual 1 ha plots of different types of forest across ecotonal southern Amazonia.
Forest-Savannah transition, Bolivia