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Published: January 27, 2014

50 priorities for palaeoecology

News |

An international group of palaeo experts have used a new methodology to identify 50 research priorities for palaeoecology.

The palaeoecology priorities were identified during a two-day workshop at the Biodiversity Institute, University of Oxford, December 2012, sponsored by IGBP's Past Global Changes project. Prior to the workshop, 905 questions were submitted online from 127 individuals, laboratories and organisations,  spanning 26 countries and five continents. The workshop provided a mechanism to sort and rank these questions eventually whittling them down to fifty.

Looking forward through the past: identification of 50 priority research questions in palaeoecology, Journal of Ecology, January 2014.

The full paper includes a detailed description of the methodology and is available online (open-access).


Human–environment interactions in the Anthropocene

  1. When did human activities first trigger global environmental change and can we define the start of the Anthropocene with reference to these activities?
  2. How did changes in human livelihood, settlement strategies and land-use affect land cover, ecosystem structure, nutrient cycles and climate over the late Quaternary?
  3. Why are some species and ecosystems more sensitive to environmental change than others and therefore respond first or to the greatest degree?
  4. Why do different species and ecosystems experience varying time-lags in their response to environmental change?
  5. What effect has Holocene landscape fragmentation had on the ability of natural and semi-natural vegetation types to respond to environmental change?
  6. How can the relationships between climate, herbivory, fire and humans be disentangled?
  7. What are the impacts of pollutants on biota, including contaminants of emerging concern and their interactions with other stressors?

Biodiversity, conservation and novel ecosystems

  1. In the context of global change and cultural landscapes, is the concept of natural variability more useful than baselines in informing management targets and, if so, how can it be defined and measured in the palaeorecord?
  2. How can palaeoecological data be used to inform ecosystem restoration, species recovery and reintroductions?
  3. How can the palaeoecological record be applied to understand the interactions between native, alien and invasive species?
  4. How can palaeoecology help define, characterize and inform the management of novel ecosystems?
  5. How can palaeoecology be applied to characterize the dynamics of ecosystem services?
  6. How should palaeoecological results be translated and communicated effectively to ensure they are adaptively integrated into environmental strategies for the present and future?
  7. What are the legacies of past environmental changes on the current structure, resilience and dynamics of natural and socio-ecological systems?
  8. Which factors make some systems more resilient to environmental change than others?
  9. Can palaeoecological records provide improved insight into the theory, causes, consequences and modelling of critical transitions and alternative stable states?
  10. What can palaeoecology reveal about early warning signals of abrupt change?

Biodiversity over long time-scales

  1. What is the role of sea-level change in community and diversity dynamics through time and across marine and terrestrial environments?
  2. What drives the spatial expansion and contraction of a species over its duration?
  3. At what rates have species ranges shifted during past intervals of climate change, and what geophysical factors, biological traits and their interactions have affected these rates?
  4. How can the rate and spatial dynamics of extinctions in the fossil record, together with palaeoclimate modelling, help in predicting future ecological and biodiversity loss?
  5. Why do the co-occurrences of some species persist through time? Is the stability of these associations caused by similar environmental niches, co-evolutionary relationships or randomness?
  6. What processes control the stability/variability of realized and fundamental niches through time?
  7. How has varying atmospheric composition shaped biotic interactions (e.g. between C3 and C4 plants, trees and grasses, megaherbivores and forage, insects and plants)?
  8. What are the appropriate null models in palaeoecology for testing hypotheses about ecological and evolutionary processes?

Ecosystem processes and biogeochemical cycling

  1. How have terrestrial carbon, nitrogen and silica cycles been linked in the past, specifically at times of abrupt climate change?
  2. What was the effect of centennial-scale climate variability on the carbon balance of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems at regional to global scales?
  3. How can palaeoecological data from continental shelf areas help characterize anthropogenic impacts on geochemical fluxes (e.g. silica, C, N and P) from land to shallow marine ecosystems during the Holocene?
  4. How does species turnover (e.g. immigrations, extinctions) and varying community composition affect ecosystem function, including carbon sequestration?
  5. How can sedimentary records be used to address process-based questions and to test mechanistic ecological models so as to provide insights about the past functioning of ecological systems?
  6. How can ecological interactions (e.g. competition, predation, mutualism, commensalism) and their possible evolutionary consequences be inferred from palaeoecological data?
  7. How can disturbances such as insect outbreaks or pathogens be detected in palaeoecological data?
  8. What are the taphonomic characteristics of ancient DNA (aDNA), in particular under different climatic and sedimentary contexts?

Comparing, combining and synthesizing information from multiple records

  1. What methods can be used to develop more robust quantitative palaeoenvironmental reconstructions and ensure reliable estimates of the associated uncertainties?
  2. How can palaeoecologists disentangle the separate and combined effects of multiple causal factors in palaeoecological records?
  3. When using modern analogues, what measures can be taken to be sure that the training set is sufficient to reconstruct the full range of likely past conditions, and if not, what else should be used to supplement these methods?
  4. What methods can be used to identify and quantify the effect of diagenetic and taphonomic processes on the palaeoecological record?
  5. How does taxonomic and numerical resolution affect the recognition of community, metacommunity and other ecological patterns?
  6. How can common environmental signals be identified in multiple records at different spatial and temporal scales?
  7. What methods can be used to better assess the leads, lags and synchronicities in palaeorecords at different spatial scales?
  8. Given that palaeoecology relies on accurately dated chronologies, how can the often incompatible dates derived from different dating techniques (e.g. 210Pb &14C, 14C & OSL) be reconciled to improve the dating of key time periods (e.g. the Industrial period; Marine Isotope Stage 3)?

Developments in palaeoecology

  1. Do ecological principles, formulated to account for present-day (10–100 years) patterns, hold when applied to palaeoecological patterns (>100–1000 years), or are there palaeoecologically important ecological processes that are impossible to study with modern observational data?
  2. What common questions can be addressed by ecologists and palaeoecologists to bridge the contrasting spatial and temporal scales between the two disciplines effectively?
  3. How can palaeoecological records contribute to and advance key concepts that are currently central to ecological thinking, including model comparison and stochastic process modelling?
  4. How can forest inventory data, modern pollen data bases and pollen loading equations be integrated effectively to facilitate the generation of robust estimates of tree and land cover?
  5. How best can palaeoecologists create an accessible, consistent, usable and future-proof record of historical and archaeological sources integrated with contemporary ecological observations?
  6. What new opportunities and research agendas, arising from the availability of higher spatial, temporal and taxonomic resolution data, will be created with the adoption of automated counting systems for microfossils?
  7. What are the developmental and genetic controls on morphology, and how can the fossil record be used to study phenotypic plasticity and the evolution of developmental systems?
  8. How do palaeoecologists encourage hypothesis testing rather than data-dredging approaches when exploring relationships between proxies and records?
  9. How can closer collaboration between palaeoecologists and statisticians be fostered in order to ensure development and dissemination of appropriate statistical techniques?

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