Gosling, W.D., Miller, C.S., Shanahan, T.M., Holden, P.B., Overpeck, J.T. & van Langevelde, F. (2022) A stronger role for long-term moisture change than for CO2 in determining tropical woody vegetation change. Science 376, 653-656. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abg4618
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For more on the palaeoecological dataset underpinning this research check out the PhD thesis of Charlotte Miller by clicking here or here.
The montane cloud forests of South America are some of the most biodiverse habitats in the world, whilst also being especially vulnerable to climate change and human disturbance.
Today much of this landscape has been transformed into a mosaic of secondary forest and agricultural fields. This thesis uses palaeoecological proxies (pollen, non-pollen palynomorphs, charcoal, organic content) to interpret ecosystem dynamics during the late Quaternary, unravelling the vegetation history of the landscape and the relationship between people and the montane cloud forest of the eastern Andean flank of Ecuador. Two new sedimentary records are examined from the montane forest adjacent to the Río Cosanga (Vinillos) and in the Quijos Valley (Huila). These sites characterise the natural dynamics of a pre-human arrival montane forest and reveal how vegetation responded during historical changes in local human populations.
Non-pollen palynomorphs (NPPs) are employed in a novel approach to analyse a forest cover gradient across these sites. The analysis identifies a distinctive NPP assemblage connected to low forest cover and increased regional burning. Investigation into the late Pleistocene Vinillos sediments show volcanic activity to be the primary landscape-scale driver of ecosystem dynamics prior to human arrival, influencing montane forest populations but having little effect on vegetation composition.
Lake sediments at Huila from the last 700 years indicate the presence of pre-Hispanic peoples, managing and cultivating an open landscape. The subsequent colonization of the region by Europeans in the late 1500’s decimated the indigenous population, leading to the abandonment of the region in conjunction with an expansion in forest cover ca. 1588 CE. After approximately 130 years of vegetation recovery, montane cloud forest reached a stage of structural maturity comparable to that seen in the pre-human arrival forest. The following 100 years (1718-1822 CE) of low human population and minimal human impact in the region is proposed as a shifted ecological baseline for future restoration and conservation goals. This ‘cultural ecological baseline’ features a landscape that retains many of the ecosystem service provided by a pristine montane forest, while retaining the cultural history of its indigenous people within the vegetation. Continue Reading
An international team of scientists have reconstructed the longest ever record of past sunshine using pollen trapped in lake sediments collected in Ghana, Africa. The study published today in Scientific Reports enables us to understand past changes in solar input to the global system over the past 140,000 years. Previously we have had to rely upon computer models to mathematically determine past solar inputs to the Earth. “This work really is a first; being able to peer back in time to understand how the Sun has driven our global system over many of thousands of years is a very exciting prospect” said joint-lead author Dr. Phillip Jardine of The Open University.
The Sun is a key component of our natural environment, driving a multitude of processes at Earth’s surface, from photosynthesis generating energy within plants, through to global-scale circulation patterns in our oceans and atmosphere. Understanding more about how the Sun has behaved in the past, and the influence this had on Earth’s environment, will help scientists predict future climate change.
Dr. Jardine used a technique pioneered by one of his co-authors, Dr. Wesley Fraser of Oxford Brookes University, to determine past changes in solar input, specifically changes in ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Plants protect themselves from the harmful nature of ultraviolet radiation by incorporating a number of specific chemical compounds into their tissues that absorb and dissipate the energy of UV radiation. Pollen grains of flowering plants are also provided protection by these UV-absorbing chemicals, thus act as a long-term recorder of ultraviolet radiation from the Sun.
Pollen grains are readily trapped in lake sediments, where they can be preserved for millions of years. By extracting material from Lake Bosumtwi, Ghana, the pollen that was released by flowering plants thousands of years ago can be separated from the lake sediment and chemically analysed for UV-absorbing chemical compounds. It is this chemical signature within the ancient pollen grains that provides us with information about past levels of solar ultraviolet radiation.
“What we present here is a new opportunity to explore how the Earth has changed” said Dr. William Gosling (University of Amsterdam). “I am particularly excited about this because it will means that we can gain a better understanding of why vegetation changed in the past, and consequently this will allow us to anticipate better what the likely impacts of projected future climate change will be.”
Jardine PE, Fraser WT, Lomax BH, Sephton MA, Shanahan TM, Miller CS & Gosling WD (2016) Pollen and spores as biological recorders of past ultraviolet irradiance. Scientific Reports. DOI: 10.1038/srep39269
Published open access:
Julier, A.C.M., Jardine, P.E., Coe, A.L., Gosling, W.D., Lomax, B.H. & Fraser, W.T. (2016) Chemotaxonomy as a tool for interpreting the cryptic diversity of Poaceae pollen. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 235, 140-147. DOI: 10.1016/j.revpalbo.2016.08.004
Hayley Keen getting excited about sediments during fieldwork in Ecuador (2012). Photo: J. Malley
Keen, H.F. (2015) Past environmental change on the eastern Andean flank, Ecuador. PhD Thesis, Department of Environment, Earth & Ecosystems, The Open University.
Abstract The eastern Andean flank of Ecuador (EAF) contains some of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems. Andean montane forests are threatened due to anthropogenic pressures and both current and projected climate change. This thesis examines the palaeoecological history of two stratigraphic sequences (Mera Tigre West [MTW] and Mera Tigre East [MTE]) obtained from the Ecuadorian modern lower montane forest. The sediments preserved were analysed using eight analytical techniques, allowing an insight into the ecosystem’s potential response to projected changes derived from their past responses. Palaeoecological studies on the EAF are rare, and those that do exist are debated relating to: i) the inference of robust ecological data from pollen records in floristically diverse locations, and ii) the past source area of sediments preserved in fluvially exposed sequences, potentially leading to contamination with older material.
A statistical sub-sampling tool was developed (debate i), capable of producing statistically robust count sizes for each pollen sample; MTW and MTE count sizes ranged from 196-982 showing the diversity within sequences. The depositional environment of MTE was analysed, investigating sediment provenance throughout (debate ii). Results found that large scale volcanic events were critical in the preservation of the sediments, whereas fluvial influence caused a regional sediment source area in the upper stratigraphy, impacting on the palynological interpretation of MTE. Pollen records demonstrated the presence of a diverse vegetation community with no modern analogue at MTE (abundant taxa (>15 %): Hedyosmum, Wettinia, Ilex) and upper montane forest at MTW (Alnus, Hedyosmum, Podocarpus). Fire was not the main driver for the vegetation reassortment at either site (MTW correlation coefficient: -0.37, MTE: 0.16). The two sites have demonstrated the EAF plays host to floristically dynamic ecosystems, susceptible to drivers of change (fire and landscape) and should be considered when predicting the montane forests’ future response to environmental change.
Valencia Castillo, B.G. (2014) From glacial to modern conditions: Vegetation and climate change under human influence in the Central Andes. PhD Thesis, Department of Environment, Earth & Ecosystems, The Open University.
Conservation, restoration and management strategies are employed to maintain Earth’s biological diversity and physical environment to a near “natural” state. However, the concept of “natural” is generally inexact and may include degraded landscapes. In absence of long-term empirical data of natural baselines, impacted assemblages (human altered baselines) could be falsely assumed to be natural and set as conservation or restoration goals. Therefore, the identification of long-term ecological baselines becomes a pressing requirement especially in threatened biodiversity hotspots such as the tropical Andes that were under human pressure for several millennial.
This thesis aims to identify ecological baselines for tropical Andean ecosystems based on multi-proxy palaeoecological reconstructions from three Andean lakes. Trends of vegetation change are used to identify when landscapes became anthropogenic in the Andes. Because vegetation assemblages at c. 10 ka experienced negligible anthropogenic impacts and had modern-like climate condition, this time was considered the most recent period likely to provide insight into natural ecological baseline conditions.
Changes in vegetation assemblages were evaluated over time departing from 10 ka around Miski and Huamanmarca, two sites that remained virtually impervious to human impacts. Baselines in Miski and Huamanmarca drifted continuously over time and showed that baselines are dynamic entities. The vegetation assemblages derived from Miski and Huamanmarca suggest that that human impact was not homogeneous throughout the Andean landscape.
Once baselines were defined it was possible to evaluate if the spatial distribution of Andean woodlands represented by Polylepis was a product of human impacts. A MaxEnt model generated based on 22 modern environmental variables and 13 palaeoecological vegetation reconstructions showed that Polylepis woodlands were naturally fragmented before humans arrived in South America (14 ka). However, the influence of humans during the mid and late Holocene enhanced the patchiness of the forest generating a hyper-fragmented landscape.
My final teaching job for The Open University was to help deliver the “Sedimentary Rocks & Fossils in the Field” section of the Level 2 Practical Science module (SXG288) offered by the Science Faculty. I have been involved in all three presentations of this section of the SXG288 module, which will now cease to be offered, and a number of other Earth and environmental science residential schools over the last 9 years.
Having the opportunity to engage directly with students and enthuse them face-to-face about the subject I specialise in is a privilege I have gained a lot from. Furthermore, my over-riding impression from the students I have taught is that they feel they benefit greatly from the opportunity to explore first hand the concepts and subjects which they have previously studied in books and online. Based on my experiences on “Sedimentary Rocks and Fossils”, and other modules as both a tutor and a student, I am convinced that to effectively teach geological, geographical, environmental and ecological subjects effectively an element of field-based teaching is required.