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.
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.
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.
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.
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
As many know, Mariah is visiting us for 6 months here at TPRG. She is currently doing her PhD in Brazil, and is co-supervised by Frank Mayle.
Mariah has done great contribution to our group and has participated of the discussions and conferences. Her last participation was on this year’s QRA Postgraduate Symposium, hold in September.
We asked her to give us her impression of the QRA conference and share the poster she presented. Here is what she said:
“It was an excellent opportunity to participate in the 21st QRA Postgraduate Symposium at University of Nottingham. I meet many Quaternary students, learned different tools and views from the past. It was a great way to learn and improve my own ideas.
The program included a tour at the British Geological Survey, great speakers such as Professor Colin Waters and Professor Melanie Leng, and also a training course with Steve Hutchinson. This was all followed by a great dinner and social events at night.
Looking forward to the next year event, in Royal Holloway, University of London!”
Click here the pdf to Mariah’s poster
Mariah with her poster at the QRA conference
Delegates at the conference. Can you spot Mariah?
Centre for Nuclear Energy in Agriculture -CENA/USP
University of São Paulo