Amazonia before Columbus

Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space & Astronomical Research invited lecture

Amazonia before Columbus – Virgin Wilderness or Domesticated Landscape?
Francis Mayle (University of Edinburgh)
Tuesday 22nd May, 11.15am
The Open University, Milton Keynes

Abstract
Amazonia has long been considered to be a pristine wilderness, largely untouched by human activity, supporting small, scattered indigenous tribes living in harmony with their rainforest environment.
However, recent discoveries of massive geometric earthworks, revealed by deforestation in recent decades, are challenging this ‘virgin wilderness’ paradigm and pointing to substantially greater environmental impacts by pre-Columbian societies than previously supposed.
In my talk I review these archaeological discoveries and discuss how a combined palaeoecological-archaeological approach has the potential to resolve the scale of environmental land use and disturbance associated with these ancient cultures.  I also consider the implications of these findings for understanding rainforest ecology and biodiversity, as well as conservation policy.

If you are external to The Open University and wish to attend this lecture please contact William Gosling in advance.

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The Mighty Midge

Fossil chironomid from the Andes

CHIRONOMIDAE AS A PALAEO-ECOLOGICAL TOOL
Chironomidae is a family of two-winged flies more commonly referred to as non biting midges. This diverse group of insects have been known for a long time to be sensitive environmental indicators. Early research in the field showed that the trophic status of lakes could be classified according to the characteristic chironomid assemblages found within them (Thienemann, 1922). Furthermore the head capsules of the larvae are well preserved within the sedimentary record. As a result palaeolimnological researchers became increasingly interested in the potential for using Chironomids to track the trophic development of a lake through time by examining the changing assemblages within the accumulated sediments. With geographically close lakes displaying significantly different midge faunas the potential for the insects being used as climatic indicators was dismissed and the following hypothesis became established: Chironomid assemblage composition reflects in-lake variables, e.g. lake depth, pH, dissolved oxygen, trophic status and substrate. However work by Walker and Matthews (1989) demonstrated that temperature was by far the most significant variable in controlling the broad scale distribution and abundance of midge fauna.

Walker and Matthews realised the potential for the non biting midge to be used as a palaeoclimatic indicator from two initial observations. Firstly within the fossil records, as climate began warming following the deglaciation of the northern hemisphere, the relative abundance of taxa associated with cold oligotrophic lakes (Heterotrissocladius) abruptly declined. Secondly they noticed the best analogues for late glacial assemblages were found in modern day arctic and alpine settings. Overall Walker and Matthews concluded that the northern limit of temperate taxon was controlled by cold summer air and/or water temperatures. The southern limit of Arctic species was instead driven by cold oxygenated refugia in the profundal zone of deep, temperate lakes. These temperatures were significant with respect to the insect’s life cycles as many species require critical temperature thresholds to complete pupation and emergence stages.

Since the pioneering work of Walker and Matthews (1989) and others the debate linking Chironomids to temperature has raged. Debate has centred upon what controls chironomid distribution and  how suitable, if at all, the insects are in the context of palaeoecological studies. Recently Velle et al. (2010) discussed some key factors which must be considered when working on chironomid based temperature resonstructions.

Below I present some of the debate around the midge-environment-temperature debate; focusing on both midge distribution and identification and the potential of this proxy as a indicator of past environmental and climatic change.

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Number crunching in palynology

Simulated pollen counts
Simulated pollen counts

HOW DO WE UNDERSTANT PAST VEGETATION CHANGE?
Our understating of vegetation in the past, and how it has changed through time, comes mainly from the examination of macrofossils (e.g. wood and leaves) and microfossils (e.g. pollen and spores) found in the sedimentary record. The potential for microscopic fossils to provide an insight into past vegetation change on a landscape scale was pioneered by von Post (Von Post, 1916, reprinted 1967) and has been subsequently used to understand changes in regional floras (Godwin, 1956), and address conservation issues (Willis et al., 2007). Analysis of fossil pollen and spores (palynology) is now widely used on late Quaternary timescales to answer ecological questions linking vegetation and wider environmental/climatic change; these include:

  • Has there been a change in major vegetation type (biome)? For example a change between woodlands and grassland vegetation.
  • How have the ecosystem dynamics altered? For example the presence or absence of fire.
  • How has the diversity within the ecosystem changed? For example increase or decrease in sample richness.

Palynological analysis relies on obtaining a sub-sample of the pollen contained within the sediment at a specific depth (time) which allows the vegetation at that time to be reconstructed. This sub-sample is known as a pollen count. To build up a picture of vegetation change through time it is necessary to generate a sequence of pollen counts. The size of the sub-sample (pollen count) required from any particular depth (time period) is dependent on the nature of the vegetation association being investigated and the ecological question being addressed . For example, the amount of pollen analysed to determine if the vegetation was predominantly wooded or grassland is different to that required to provide information on the biological diversity within the vegetation assemblage.

Discussed below are some of the conventions related to choosing an appropriate pollen count size within palynology, with particular reference to the challenges of dealing with diverse tropical floras.

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PCRG March

In March the Palaeoenvironmental Change Research Group (PCRG) have been involved with data collection in the labs, training, fieldwork planning (and un-planning) and outreach.

Two notable pieces of pollen data collection have made significant progress this month: 1) Hayley has been working at collecting data to establish what is a suitable pollen count size to assess vegetation change within her highly diverse Amazonina samples, and 2) Lottieis on to about the last dozen samples to complete the overview of 500,000 years of pollen from Lake Bosumtwi (Ghana); an amazing pollen record and an excellent research effort which will be the cornerstone of her PhD thesis! More soon on both these pollen stories as they unfold… In addition, I am pleased to report that the list of taxa within our pollen reference collection has finally been fully digitized – Thank you Jason; details of the >3000 taxa collection will soon be available on the lab web pages.

Gigantic Prasinophytes (>100 microns)

Also in the lab: Alice Kennedy, working on ‘deep time’ palaeoecology, has identified a bloom in the foraminifera Reinholdella macfadyeni and gigantic Prasinophytes associate with marine annoxia in sediments from Yorkshire. Will be interesting to find out what these all mean at the next lab meeting!

At the beginning of March four of us (Frazer, Hayley, Lottie and myself) attended a First Aid for field work training course run by Mediact. The course was excellent with plenty of useful information and the opportunity to practice techniques such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (on dummies) and bandaging (on each other). Unfortunately we will have to wait to practice any of the techniques in the field as our planned trip to Ecuador looks likely to be postponed due to injury to one of our members! Get well soon Frazer 🙂 On the up side this should allow me to catch up with the piles of papers I should be writing.

The month finished with an exciting outreach event. I was asked to present our research to the Oxford Geology Group. The event was hosted at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. It was an excellent day of talks and it was fun to discuss our research with interested people.

PCRG February

Laboratory activity has continued through February with progress on pollen counts (Lottie and Hayley) and chironomid (non-biting midges) picking (Frazer). Hayley also managed to escape the microscope lab for a short period: 1) to commence work on selecting samples from tephras for Ar-Ar dating, and 2) to counduct loss-on-ignition analysis of organic samples to identify the constituents of her sediment. I did not make it on to the microscope 😦

I was however very pleased to welcome Macarena Cardenas back into the lab as a visiting Research Fellow. Maca will be working on the pollen reference collection, assisting with PhD student analysis and continuing to write papers during her renewed association.

Frazer, Hayley and I have also begun planning for field work in Ecuador for April-May. We will be working in collaboration with the Instituto Geophisico in Quito and the plan is to visit the Mera site which Hayley is working on, and to collect lake surface samples for Frazer to examine the midges. In preparation for the collection of midges samples expert, and project co-supervisor, Steve Brooks (Natural History Museum) visited for a day to brief us on how best to do this.

Away from research I have been working on writing exam questions and tutor marked assignments for the level 3 module The geological record of environmental change (S369, to those familliar with OU codes!). Hopefully, I have managed to set some interesting and challenging tasks for our students. . .

Relay team palaeo

The Open University Les Irvine Memorial Relay 2012 "Team Palaeo"The 21st The Open University Les Irvine Memorial Relay was held yesterday (29/02/2012) and four teams from the Environment, Earth & Ecosystems department were entered amoung the 40 which took part. Run over four legs and covering a 1.1 mile course at Walton Hall it was another fun event.

For the third year running a team of palaeoecologists took part. This year “Team Palaeo” comprised Hayley Keen, myself, Frazer Bird and Lottie Miller (left to right on photo) and we were the fastest finishing team from the department!

Nitrogen isotopes in lake sediments

COMMENT ON THE USE OF NITROGEN ISOTOPES IN PALAEOLIMOLOGICAL STUDIES
As a component of my doctoral research, I am examining nitrogen (N) isotopes within sediments obtained from Lake Bosumtwi (West Africa). Below I review and comment on the key uses and limitations of using N isotopes to interpret past environmental change with particular reference to lake sediments. Discussion is based on the key text by Talbot (2001).

REFERENCE
Talbot, M.R. 2001. Nitrogen isotopes in palaeolimnology. Tracking environmental change using lake sediments. Volume 2. Physical and geochemical methods (ed. by W.M. Last and J.P. Smol), pp. 401-439. Kluwer Academic Press, Dordrecht.

NOTE: This text is avaliable to Open University students as an ebook via the library

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British Ecological meetings

BES careers 2012

I am currently a member of the British Ecological Society (BES) council. The BES is a ‘learned society’ based at Charles Darwin House in London which publishes four academic journals, has thousands of members and is open to anyone with an interest in ecology. As part of my role on council I serve on two committees which run different aspects of the societies activity: 1) meetings, and 2) education, training and careers. This month we have had meetings of both these committees. Two highlights of the societies activity related to these committees were:

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Thinking about proxies

COMMENT ON DISCUSSION OF PROXIES IN HUNTLEY (2012)
All areas of research have strengths and limitations which are readily acknowledged by the scientists involved. The reconstruction of past climates (palaeoclimates) from biological indicators contained within the fossil record (proxies) presents some specific challenges; for example key limitations might be gaps in a sedimentary sequence or post-depositional degradation of samples. Understanding and interpreting data sets in the face of these challenges require the researcher to develop a wide range of skills. Huntley (2012) focuses upon the uncertainties within palaeoclimate reconstruction which he considers to be “frequently overlooked” (p. 2) by scientists making climate reconstructions from proxy records. Specifically Huntley urges researchers to consider carefully:

  • What a given proxy is actually capable of reconstructing, i.e. what climate variables controls its distribution?
  • What other variables might be influencing the proxy, i.e. could there be multiple influences, might these vary through time?
  • What is the spatial relevance of the proxy, i.e. macro versus micro scale?
  • Can multiple proxies be compared, either within or between sites?

In other words: which and how many climatic variables can be reconstructed form any one aspect of the fossil record?

Below I review and comment on some key arguments made by Huntley (2012) related to the use of proxies in reconstructing palaeoclimates.

REFERENCE
Huntley, B. (2012) Reconstructing palaeoclimates from biological proxies: Some often overlooked sources of uncertainty. Quaternary Science Reviews 31: 1-16.

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PCRG January

January 2012 has been a busy one for the Palaeoenvironmental Change Research Group members we have been getting out and about (attending three research meetings), there has been activity in the labs (pollen, chironomids and geochemical analysis all being undertaken) and developments with the publication of our research (book chapter published and two papers moved along in the publication process).

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Environmental change in the humid tropics and monsoonal regions

JUST PUBLISHED
Bush, M.B. & Gosling, W.D. (2012) Environmental change in the humid tropics and monsoonal regions. The SAGE handbook of environmental change: Volume 2. Human Impacts and Response (ed. by J.A. Matthews, P.J. Bartlein, K.R. Briffa, A.G. Dawson, A. De Vernal, T. Denham, S.C. Fritz and F. Oldfield), pp. 113-140. SAGE, London. ISBN: 978-0-857-02360-5

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Open University Geological Society

Last Saturday (21st January) the West Midlands Open University Geological Society held a day of lectures at the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Birmingham. I was one of five invited speakers who covered a wide range of topics related to geology: Snowball Earth (McMillan, Birmingham), earthquakes in Chile (Ryder, Liverpool), salt mines of Cheshire (Carlon), Icelandic eruptions (Watson, Bristol) and myself on glacial-interglacial cycles in the tropics. The Dome lecture theater was full and it was exciting to be able to engage OUGS members directly with reaserch being conducted in the Palaeoenvironmental Change Research Group at The OU. Therefore, many thanks to Ron Whitfield for inviting me and organising the event. I will certainly be recommending attending and speaking at these events to my departmental collegues.

Visit the OUGS website to find out about other activities and events like this.