Starting an ERC project in a corona world: virtual lab meetings

July 12, 2020

Lab meeting online

Lab meeting online

Hi everyone, and welcome to the ALPHA project: Assessing Legacies of Past Human Activities in Amazonia! 

This project will increase our understanding of how past disturbances have influenced the biodiversity and structure of Amazonian rainforests.  The coming years, we will work on reconstructing past fire and vegetation history of forest plots in Amazonia, and how that history relates to modern biomass and modern carbon dynamics. ALPHA is important for forest conservation, because results can be used to prioritize land for conservation. ALPHA results will also give an estimation of the Amazonian rainforests’ ability to sequester carbon, which is important for global carbon models. dr. C.N.H. McMichael received an ERC grant to research ALPHA in Amazonia together with 2 PhD students, 1 post-doc, 2 technicians and a senior-staff. At the beginning of March, the positions were filled, and our team was complete. But then COVID-19 happened… and our team was spread over continents!

To keep ALPHA going, we started with weekly virtual lab meetings. Because these fruitful discussions are online, other researchers soon joined from the US, UK and Jamaica. It is not your average “vrijmibo”, but very fun and a nice way to stay connected! One of the papers we have discussed is the “Asynchronous carbon sink saturation in African and Amazonian tropical forests” from Hubau et al (2020). 

In 2015, Brienen et al. published an article about the growth and mortality of trees in Amazonian rainforests for the period of 1985 to 2015. Their results showed a decline of the carbon sink in Amazonian forests. 

Now, Hubau et al. (2020) added results from African forest plots and compared the net carbon sink of the African and Amazonian forests. Instead of a long-term decline, African forests showed a stable carbon sink. The difference in their carbon sink was because more trees died in Amazonia, but not in African forests. But since 2010, a decline is also visible in the carbon sink of African forests. This suggests that the two forests have a different ‘saturation’ point in the carbon they can storage. 

A statistical model with CO2, temperature, drought and forest dynamics was created to predict the carbon changes of the forests over time. This model predicts that the carbon sink of African forests will show a gradual decline and the carbon sink of Amazonian forests will decline fast.  

Overall, this paper highlights that our rainforests may not be the carbon sink we had thirty years ago. We will need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sooner, if we want to limit global warming. Also, this paper showed how important forest dynamics are to accurately model and predict the carbon storage of Amazonia. Hopefully, the ALPHA research project will make a contribution to this! 

Palaeoecology of Africa

April 20, 2020

I am delighted to announce that a new volume of the classic book series Palaeoecology of Africa is now under development. This new volume (hopefully number 35) will focus on “Quaternary Vegetation Dynamics” and build on recent initiatives to develop the “African Pollen Database”. The volume will be guest edited by Anne-Marie Lezine (LOCEAN), Louis Scott (University of the Free State) and myself, along side the series editor Jürgen Runge (Johann Wolfgang Goethe University). If you are interested to contribute please get in touch.


The Quaternary Vegetation Dynamics volume of the long-running Palaeoecology of Africa series  will showcase palynological work from across the African continent and surrounding regions, and place this in the context of past climatic, human and evolutionary change. We are keen to use this opportunity to catalyse the archiving of previously published and new datasets into the open access online African Pollen Database. The volume will be published entirely open access online and will contain four types of manuscript: (i) Research papers, (ii) Data papers, (iii) Review papers, and (iv) Perspectives.

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Using the Past to Inform a Sustainable Future: Palaeoecological Insights from East Africa

February 4, 2020


Esther Githumbi

New book chapter by African Pollen Database data steward Esther Githumbi and collegues:

Githumbi, E., Marchant, R. & Olago, D. (2020) Using the Past to Inform a Sustainable Future: Palaeoecological Insights from East Africa. Africa and the Sustainable Development Goals (ed. by M. Ramutsindela & D. Mickler), pp. 187-195. Springer Nature, Switzerland AG. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-14857-7_18

African Pollen Database – Data stewards

January 29, 2020

Neotoma PackratAn African Pollen Database data steward training event was held at the Institute for Biodiversity & Ecosystem Dyanmics (University of Amsterdam, 27-29 January 2020) where training in the use of the Neotoma database was provided by Eric Grimm. The participants are now enabled curate and archive data within Neotoma. If you have a palaeoecological data set that you would like to contribute to Neotoma, or if you would like training as well, these people can now help you. Contact details below:

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African Pollen Database data steward training event

January 24, 2020

APD “Awesome” in Paris October 2019 – Vincent Montade, William Gosling, Chris Kiathipes, and Manu Chevalier (l-r)

The African Pollen Database (APD; Vincens et al., 2007) has recently received a new life thanks to the work of Anne-Marie Lezine, Eric Grimm, Sarah Ivory and Jack Williams who have obtained funding to develop the digital infrastructure and link to the Neotoma Palaeoecology Database (Williams et al., 2018) and the Institut Pierre-Simon Laplace (IPSL) Paleoclimate database. The kick off meeting was held at the IRD centre in Bondy (October 2019), and the next step (training the data stewards) will be held in my department within the Institute for Biodiversity & Ecosystems Dynamics (University of Amsterdam) next week (January 2020).

Pollen data recorded in Neotoma for Africa on 24 January 2020. Hopefully after the data steward training event we will have a few more dots on the map, and the potential for many more.

We are delighted to be able to host sixteen researchers of many nationalities conducting research in many different countries. The aim of the training event is to provide researchers with the skills to manage Neotoma and strengthen the African pollen research community.  I am excited to be involved, I am confidence that much new research will be brought together, and I hope that we can get good plans in place for further steps and growth of this network.

Vincens, A., Lézine, A.-., Buchet, G., Lewden, D. & Le Thomas, A. (2007) African pollen database inventory of tree and shrub pollen types. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 145, 135-141.  DOI: 10.1016/j.revpalbo.2006.09.004

Williams, J.W., Grimm, E.C., Blois, J.L., Charles, D.F., Davis, E.B., Goring, S.J., Graham, R.W., Smith, A.J., Anderson, M., Arroyo-Cabrales, J., Ashworth, A.C., Betancourt, J.L., Bills, B.W., Booth, R.K., Buckland, P.I., Curry, B.B., Giesecke, T., Jackson, S.T., Latorre, C., Nichols, J., Purdum, T., Roth, R.E., Stryker, M. & Takahara, H. (2018) The Neotoma Paleoecology Database, a multiproxy, international, community-curated data resource. Quaternary Research 89, 156-177. DOI: 10.1017/qua.2017.105

Detecting past peoples in the tropics

January 22, 2020

Vegetation History & ArchaeobotanyDetecting the presence, and impact, of peoples past impact in ecosystems and landscapes in the tropics is a challenging because the traces that they leave behind are few and disentangling them from ‘natural’ (non-human related) variability is a challenge. As an Associate Editor for Vegetation History & Archaeobotany (VHAA) I enjoy handling manuscripts that think about these issues and explore the role of humans in tropical landscapes. Two recent papers published in VHAA touched on this subject (one of which I “communicated” as an editor).

  • Bodin et al. (2020) studied charcoal recovered from soil at sites with a gradient of archaeological evidence for past human activity in French Guiana.
  • Goethals & Verschuren (2019) explored the relationship between the amount of dung fungi found in lake sediments and the herbivore populations living around the lakes.

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AFQUA 2018 – day 5

July 18, 2018

AFQUA: The African Quaternary environments, ecology and humans
2ndInternational Conference and Workshops
14-22 July 2018-07-15 National Museum, Nairobi, Kenya

Day 5

The fifth day of the AFQUA conference started with the second session on “Archaeological Landscapes”. Talks included: (i) a tribute to the work of Dick Grove in Quaternary work in Africa since the 1950’s, including possibly the earliest definition of the African humid period in his paper Grove & Warren (1968) (D.S.G. Thomas), and (ii) a highlight of new work on the Kisese II Rock Shelter in Tanzania (K. Ranhorn). Then to take us up to lunch Prof. David Nash treated us to a tour de force through the use of historical records in reconstructing past climates; including quotes from the fantastically named Holloway Helmore a missionary to Lekatlong in 1851 commenting on drough and how to turn this type of information into a regional/continental synthesis!

The afternoon session focused around the theme of “East Africa”. This session started with two talks on one of the “least known ancient civilization” in Ethiopia the Aksumite and pre-Aksumite peoples, and the resilience of these peoples to environmental and land-use change (V. Terwilliger and Z. Eshetiu).  Other work presented on the morphometry of hominin skulls showing gradual development from 500,000 to 315,000 years ago which lead up to the appearance of anatomically modern humans (E. Mbua).

AFQUA 2018 – day 2

July 16, 2018

AFQUA: The African Quaternary environments, ecology and humans
2ndInternational Conference and Workshops
14-22 July 2018-07-15 National Museum, Nairobi, Kenya

Day 2

The second day of the AFQUA conference commenced with the second session on “East Africa” and Prof. Tom Johnson asking the question “Should we drill Lake Victoria?”… and a request for ideas from people to join in with ideas for the proposals for obtaining new sedimentary records from the lake. The East Africa session continued with exploration of Lake Kivu using organic biomarkers to see if past lake ‘explosions’ could be detected (M.E. Berke) and the use of strontium isotopes to detect past climate from lakes in the Turkana Basin (H.J.L. van der Lubbe).

Before lunch the second plenary talk of the conference was delivered by Prof. Sharon Nicolson who made it very clear that the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone does NOT play an important role in controlling rainfall patterns across Africa (see Nicholson, 2018).

After lunch the first oral sessions covered “Southern Africa” and included d13C records from Bobab trees (S. Woodborne and E. Razanatsoa), early human finds in cascade tufas (M.A. Pickford), and quantitative climate reconstructions from pollen using the CREST software (M. Chevalier). After the break we were back for “Quantitative palaeoclimatology, modelling and data-model comparison” thinking about what is abrupt (M. Claussen), the impact of atmospheric CO2 on plants (V.J. Hare), and connectivity between lakes in the Kenyan rift (R. Dommain). Then it was off to the hotel bar to watch the football…

AFQUA 2018 – day 1

July 15, 2018

AFQUA: The African Quaternary environments, ecology and humans
2ndInternational Conference and Workshops
14-22 July 2018-07-15 National Museum, Nairobi, Kenya

My first AFQUA conference really began the day before the conference proper started in the Kenyan immigration queue where I met a number of fellow delegates who were flying in from all over the world.  It was great to start to put faces to names of people who’s work I had read for many years. Once out of the airport transfer to the hotel was smooth, and it was with some excitement that the following morning I made the short walk from the hotel to the famous Nairobi National Museum for the start of the conference.

Day 1

Prof. Andy Cohen (one of my fellow delegates in the immigration line) kicked off the AFQUA conference with a plenary giving an overview of African continental drilling projects. He traced the dream of the recovery of long continental records back to Daniel Livingstone and Neil Opdyke’s workshop from 1980 that set out the dream of obtaining long records from the continent. He then went on to give examples of how multi-millennial lake records, including Lake Malawi, can be used to understand the tempo of ecological change.

The first session of the conference, entitled “East Africa”, included: exciting evidence of Deinotherium the largest land mammal of the Quaternary (J.-P. Brugal), the use of d13C in determining homonin ecology (V.M. Iminjili), and evidence from a new c. 200,000 year old site at Natodomeri (Kenya) that contains evidence of homonids, elephids, giant lions and pigmy hippos (F.K. Manthi).

The second session of AFQUA covered “The environmental context for homonin evolution and dispersal”. This started with geochemical data from Chew Bahir that sheds light on potential drivers of climatic shifts (F. Schabitz), and included examination of changes climate between c. 500,000 and 320,000 years ago that coincided with the shift from hominid use of large cutting tools to smaller implements (R. Potts), and discussion of the environment the route which hominids took out of Africa (F. Henselowsky).

Tribute to Daniel Livingstone and Paul Colinvaux

January 26, 2018

Mark Bush and I are proud to announce that a tribute to Prof. Daniel Livingston and Prof. Paul Colinvaux has recently been published in Quaternary Research. Dan and Paul were both pioneers of tropical pal(a)eoecology and both died in the spring of 2016 . To mark their passing Mark and I have guest edited ten new papers on palaeoecology drawn from researchers, and regions, of the tropics in which Dan and Paul worked (Bush & Gosling, 2018). We would like to thank Quaternary Research Senior Editor Derek Booth for giving us this opportunity and assisting greatly in the process of compiling the manuscripts. We would also like to thank all to contributing authors for their hard work and dedication to the project. We hope that you will enjoy reading the manuscripts and find them a fitting tribute to the life and work of these two great researchers.

Quaternary Research
Special Issue: Tribute to Daniel Livingstone and Paul Colinvaux
Volume 89 – Special Issue 1 – January 2018 Continue Reading

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