What the Past Can Tell Us About the Future: Notes from Crossing the Palaeontological – Ecological Gap

Post provided by Karen Bacon

I had the pleasure of delivering one of the plenary talks at the first (hopefully of many) Crossing the Palaeontological – Ecological Gap meeting held in the University of Leeds on August 30th and 31st. I’m a geologist and a botanist, so this is a topic that’s close to my heart and my professional interests.

How Palaeoecology Can Help Us Today

©Gail Hampshire

©Gail Hampshire

As we move into an ecologically uncertain future with pressures of climate change, land-use change and resource limitations, the fossil record offers the only truly long-term record of how Earth’s ecosystems respond to major environmental upheaval driven by climate change events. The fossil record is, of course, not without its problems – there are gaps, not everything fossilises in the same way or numbers, and comparisons to today’s ecology are extremely difficult.  It’s these difficulties (and other challenges) that make the uniting of palaeontology and ecology essential to fully address how plants, animals and other organisms have responded to major changes in the past. Perhaps uniting them could give us an idea of what to expect in our near-term future, as carbon dioxide levels return to those not previously experienced on Earth since the Pliocene, over 2 million years ago.

CPEG: A Diverse and Interesting Conference

It is these challenges that the CPEG meeting set out to discuss, if not yet fully address. Organisers –  Alex Dunhill (University of Leeds), Emily Mitchell (University of Cambridge) and Erin Saupe (University of Oxford) – brought together a diverse set of scientists who identified as geologists, modellers, biologists, ecologists, palaeontologists and more with talks and posters covered a fascinating array of topics.

©Sid Mosdell

©Sid Mosdell

Plenary speakers discussed temperature regulation (Andrew Clarke), reconstructing ancient food webs (Jennifer Dunne), the use of ecological networks in palaeoecology (Andrew Beckerman) Palaeocene palaeoecology (Thomas Halliday), and determining extinction risk in plants (me!).  The range of topics in the plenaries alone highlighted how much scope there is to bring ecological methodologies to bear in palaeoecological studies. They also showed how the reverse could help us to refine predictions and understanding for the impacts of future climate change on our modern ecosystems.

Conference talks, lightning sessions and posters emphasised the potential unity and utility of linking these two disciplines even more. The topics discussed and displayed throughout the conference were incredibly diverse and included things like conservation, morphometrics and assessing dietary changes preserved in fossils.  Some personal highlights included Oliver Wilson’s presentation on understanding how the pressures of human activity present a new challenge for plants that have survived in refugia during previous periods of climate change; Katie Davis’ poster highlighting how geological techniques can be used for modern conservation biology; and Virginia Harvey’s prize-winning presentation on how to use molecular biology to identify past fishing habits.

Bringing Ecology and Palaeoecology Together

Overall, CPEG highlighted that ecologists and palaeoecologists are both keen to cross the gap between disciplines and that we can gain a lot by doing so. Many of us see the value in the diverse opinions and methods that the two subjects can bring to bear and see the combined approach as the one most likely to offer essential insights, not only into how our ecosystems function now, but also how they functioned in the past and how they could function in the future. This is further highlighted by the exciting range of papers currently available in the Methods in Ecology & Evolution Virtual Issue (edited by Alex Dunhill and Lee Hsiang Liow) that was released to coincide with the conference.

At the close of the conference, it was agreed that participants would like to see this event become a regular part of our conference calendar. Hopefully CPEG will return in the near future.

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