Field work near Mera (Ecuador)

Mera (Ecuador) 

We have now spent two days in sampling sedimentary sections near the Rio Tigre close to Mera in Ecuador. The sections are peat deposits interspersed with volcanic ash and contain many wood macrofossils. It seems likely that the depositional environment was a shallow water swamp or bog. Although we will have to wait for the analysis of the fossil record to know the composition of the vegetation at the site.

Sediment Hunting near Mera
Sediment Hunting near Mera

Mera Rio Tigre section
Mera Rio Tigre section

Sunset at Giobambua hotel
Sunset at Giobambua hotel

PCRG August

I am writing this August post from the Hotel Rincon Escandinavo (Quito, Ecuador) most of this month has been pretty hectic as we have been preparing for this field work trip and trying to get as many things out the way before hand.

We seem to have been quite involved in conference activity: Lottie presented “500,000 years of vegetation change from West tropical Africa” at the International Paleolimnology Association Symposium in Glasgow, Hayley had an abstract on “Pollen counting for diverse tropical ecosystems”  accepted for the Linnean Society Palynology Group meeting (1 November) and group members also submitted abstracts for consideration to be presented at the American Geophysical Union Congress and British Ecological Society meeting (both in December); fingers crossed these will be accepted as well.

Regarding the field work. Preparation seems to have gone well and we have arrived in Quito with all out bags, despite a short (1 hour) connection in Madrid. Tomorrow we will meet up with Dr Patricia Mothes (Instituto Geofisico) and set out our detailed plans. As I have now been up for more than 24 hours I should probably get some sleep… Plan is to blog more about the trip as it happens.


PCRG members taking part in the Milton Keynes NSPCC Half Marathon, 8 July (left to right: Charlotte Miller, Wesley Fraser and William Gosling)

I have been really excited with the increase in the number of posts and various contributions to this blog over the last month or so. So thanks to everyone who has contributed. The excellent content allows me to focus on just a few research and teaching events which have not been previously covered.

1) Welcome to Wesley Fraser who has joined us officilally as a visiting postdoc for a few months. We hope to develop a paper and another grant submission looking at pollen/spore chemistry during this time; for further details see “Do plants wear sunblock” post.

2) Well done to Frazer and Hayley for performing well in their end of year 1 mini-vivas. Both projects are progressing well and we are all looking forward to field work at the end of the month. Hopefully most of the prepartation and equipment are now in place…

3) Potential for more exiting collaborations was also developed at two meetings. The first, at the Natural History Museum and, in conjunction with long term collaborator Steve Brooks was with old friends Mick Frogley (Sussex) and Alex Chepstow-Lusty. Both Mick and Alex taught me when I was at Cambridge and it would be super exiting to develop a new collaboration with them looking at Chironomids in Andean lakes. The second was at the Univesity of Nottingham as I took part in a UK Tropical Peatlands meeting which brought together ecologists and palaeoecologists from Nottingham, Leeds, Leicester and The OU. The aim of the meeting was to coordinate papers and grant applications.

4) At the end of July beginning of August I taught on the “Sedimentary Rocks and Fossils in the field” topic for the new Practical Science, Earth & Environment (SXG288) module which The OU now offers. Longridge Towers School (no children around this time of year) provided the perfect base for investigating the sedimentary geology of the region. The small group of students had the opportunity to make field observations and test hypotheses related to past environmental change. Everyone was very excited to find numerous fossils and interesting sedimentary structres and had fun trying to work out what they all meant! Congratulations to Angela Coe for putting together this great event.

A research expedition in Peru, the land of the Paddington Bear

English: Paddington Bear at Paddington Station

I whish I could start with “ Once upon a time…” because that would be the easiest way to begin this paragraph (or a paper). Besides, to some extend, “Once upon a time” can be appropriate because this is a story related to the OLD friends of the Paddington Bear. By that, I mean a story about the mega fauna in South America.

I, Kobrina Olga, have drawn reconstruction on ...
Macrauchenia drawn by Kobrina Olga (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Reconstructing environmental change in Jamaica

by Mick Burn and Suzanne Palmer (University of West Indies)

Our whistle-stop tour of the UK brought us to the PCRG on the 26-27 June. We are undertaking a multiproxy (ostracods, gastropods, forams) study of different coastal lagoons along the south coast of Jamaica in order to reconstruct coastal environmental change over the last Millennium. Jamaica lies not only within the firing line of Atlantic tropical cyclones but also forms part of the Gonave microplate, which has been responsible for a series of large earthquakes within the region, including the infamous 2010 earthquake in Port au Prince, Haiti. As a consequence, one of our main challenges is to distinguish between sediments deposited during abrupt climatic and tectonic events over the last ca. 1000 years.

Figure 1: A section of the sediment record from Albion Ponds.
Figure 1: A section of the sediment record from Albion Ponds.

The purpose of our UK visit this year was to split cores recovered from Albion Ponds in preparation for ITRAX XRF core scanning at Aberystwyth University in August. We are very grateful for the hospitality at PCRG and look forward to developing further collaboration on projects in the very near future.

Do plants wear sun-block?

A growing body of evidence suggests that plants alter their chemical composition in relation to the amount of incoming solar radiation (“insolation“) they are exposed to during life.  Chemical changes are induced in order to provide protection against the deleterious effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation; a relatively small, but important component of the total solar spectrum.  UV radiation is linked with a range of detrimental biological effects, primarily stemming from damaged DNA.  As sessile organisms, plants need to employ various mitigation mechanisms to prevent/reduce damage induced by UV radiation.  Such mechanisms include effective DNA repair pathways, physiological adaptations, and UV-absorbing compounds.  It is this last mechanism, UV-absorbing compounds (UACs), that is discussed here.

Lycopodium spore chemistry
Lycopodium spore chemistry can be divided into two distinct groups; aliphatic components and phenolic components.

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Response of Chironomids to late Pleistocene and Holocene environmental change in the eastern Bolivian Andes

Williams, J.J., Brooks, S. & Gosling, W.D. (2012) Response of Chironomids to late Pleistocene and Holocene environmental change in the eastern Bolivian Andes  Journal of Paleolimnology48: 485-501. doi: 10.1007/s10933-012-9626-1.




On Tuesday the UK participation in the International Continental scientific Drilling Program (ICDP) was officially launched at the British Geological Survey (Keyworth). The ICDP is designed to help scientists with the aquisition of samples to answer fundemental questions related to geological and enviornmental science. Now that the UK has membership to the ICDP, thanks to investment from the BGS, UK based scientists can take more of a lead in developing projects. Having worked on two projects based on ICDP sediments (Lake’s Titicaca and Bosumtwi) I am delighted by this development and hope over the next few years to be able to get involved in further exciting research.

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NERC Fellowship success

I am delighted to report that Dr Encarnacion Montoya Romo (currently of the Botanical Institute of Barcelona) has been awarded a NERC Fellowship to join the PCRG. The project is entitled “Evaluation of tropical forests sensitivity to past climate change” (FORSENS) and will examine environmental change at four study sites from different regions of the Neotropics: 1) Khomer Kotcha (Bolivia; 17oS, 4100 m above sea level [asl]) [1-3], 2) Consuelo (Peru, 13oS; 1400 m asl) [4-5], 3) Banos (Ecuador; 0oS, 4000 m asl), and 4) a new lowland site from Columbia/Ecuador to be collected during field work during the project.

The aim of the project is to explore the spatial and temporal consitance of tropical vegetation response to aridity (mid-Holocene dry period) and warming (last deglaciation). The project will use fossil pollen, chironomids, charcoal, non pollen palynomorphs and organic biomarkersto build up a comprehnsive picture of environmental change. The diversity of the project means we have a number of exciting partners, including: Steve Brooks (Natural History Museum), Prof. Mark Bush (Florida Tech),  Prof. Valenti Rull (Botanical Institute of Barcelona) and the Dr. Pauline Gulliver (NERC radicarbon facility).

The fellowship will commence in October 2012. Further information will appear on is blog and group website soon.

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I have been engaged with two major activities during June: 1) submission of a research proposal to NERC, and 2) excitement of my first online teaching module going live to students, Cyprus activity, within Practical science: Earth and environment module (SXG288). Other members of the group have been writing up methods chapters (Natalie), number crunching and submitting abstract to the International Paleolimnology Symposium (Lottie), and submitting first year probation reports (Hayley and Frazer).

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Numerical Analysis of Biological and Environmental Data

Particpants on the Numerical Analysis course 2012
Particpants on the Numerical Analysis course 2012: Lottie Miller, Guiomar Sanchez, Maria Rubio, John Douglass and Sonia Jaehnig (left-right). Photo courtesy of Manuela Milan.

Last month I attended the Numerical Analysis of Biological and Environmental Data course at University College London (UCL) in order to decipher which techniques of multivariate data analysis would be useful to apply to my data from Lake Bosumtwi (Ghana). The course was led by Dr Gavin Simpson (UCL) and Prof. John Birks (University of Bergen), both of whom are well experienced in quantitative palaeoecology.

The course provided an introduction to the methods, guidance as to when to use the techniques and then outlined the assumptions, limitations and strengths of the various methods. The need to fully understand the techniques applied before attempting to critically evaluate the results was also strongly emphasised.

The course consisted of lectures covering measures of dispersion, cluster analysis, dendrograms, regression analysis, tree models, gradient analysis, transfer functions, time series and hypothesis testing. Afternoon practical computer classes involved using R, C2 and CANOCO to implement the various techniques covered in the lectures.

Overall the course was a great introduction to statistical analysis which I would certainly recommend for anybody working with complex and noisy datasets. In the next few days I will be using my newly learnt R skills to run indirect gradient analysis such as PCA, CA, DCA and NMDSCAL to search for environmental gradients within my data.

Numerical Analysis of Biological and Environmental Data training couse is an annual event and was held at UCL, on 14-25th May 2012. For more information about the course see Gavin’s website or read his blog From the bottom of the heap.

PCRG April & May

Time seemed to escape me in April so I have a lot of research group action to report in this post! Here are some highlights…

At The Open University (OU) the research students have all been busy (of course): Natalie presented her 3rd year talk at the CEPSAR student conference and attended a meeting in Durham, Lottie spent two weeks at University College London (Environmental Change Research Centre) learning to become a statistics guru studying the “Numerical Analysis of Biological and Environmental Data” course, while Hayley and Frazer have been writing up their first year probation reports ahead of their mini-vivas next month. Over in Florida Bryan submitted his first PhD paper and has headed off on field work in Peru; and most significantly… I am very pleased to report that Nikki successfully defended her PhD thesis! Congratulations Nikki!

Thinking of PhD I was also pleased to have the opportunity to welcome my PhD supervisor, Frank Mayle, to The OU to give a CEPSAR seminar last week. It was great to be able to show off the labs to Frank at last having promised to invite him down when I arrived at The OU in 2005! He gave a very interesting talk on new archaeological findings from beneath the rain-forest in the Amazon Basin.

Away from The OU a couple of weeks ago I was down at Charles Darwin House for the British Ecological Society meetings committee meeting! We were working on the program for the annual meeting in Birmingham during December this year and it is shaping up to be a very exciting event; keep up to date by following the BES on twitter (@BritishEcolSoc).