A summer of conferences

As a new academic year begins, students return and trees get geared up for autumn, it feels like a good time to look back at the various things that have happened over the summer months. Josie kicked off this mini-series with a post on her fieldwork in the Peruvian Andes and James is working on one about his research trip to Bolivia with Frank, so for a bit of variety I thought I’d give an overview of my summer of conferences. It’s less exotic than going to South America, sure, but I still had a good time! And there have been quite a few to report on…

The season’s first conference was Intact Forests in the 21st Century, at Magdalen College Oxford. I have to admit, initially I felt like a bit of an impostor – after all, I work on Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, one of the most fragmented forests in the world – but I was there in connection with a side project we’ve been working on looking at Amazonia. There’s a long, ongoing and quite contentious debate about where the biome sits on a scale from ‘pristine’ to ‘anthropogenic’, so for a few months we’ve been surveying researchers about their definitions of key terms used in these discussions. Do these differ with the respondent’s disciplinary background? Is my perception of a ‘natural’ forest the same as yours? And – relevantly for this conference – what do people mean when they write or read ‘intact’? Our poster had some results from a preliminary analysis of the survey, showing the diversity of opinions among our 30-odd respondents – if you haven’t taken part and would like to, then get in touch!

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Anthropogenic Araucaria forests? New evidence published

A thousand years ago in southern Brazil, the unique Araucaria forest expanded rapidly over highland grasslands (campos), a change that’s largely been attributed to climate changes. At the same time, the southern proto-Jê people, whose diets and culture were interwoven with Araucaria trees, flourished. Given the close connections between the people and trees, and the timings of their expansions, might the Jê have been more important for that last forest expansion than the climate? So far, concrete evidence to address this question has been lacking – but two recent studies set out to provide just that. 

 

Araucaria forest at sunrise. Photo by Douglas Scortegagna (CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons)

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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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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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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.

Oli

@olijwilson

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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