The interdisciplinary study of organic walled microfossils: A ramble.

Figure 1.  That's really a lot of pollen.  A lot of pollen.  Image by Brooke Novak
Figure 1. That’s really a lot of pollen. A lot of pollen. Image by Brooke Novak

It’s no secret to members of the Canadian Association of Palynologists (join now!) that the study of organic-walled microfossils is the most interesting branch of science, but it may come as a surprise to some of our colleagues. The thing is, our colleagues all have their own opinions. If they’re in biology departments they probably like bears; geology, they probably like different kinds of gravel; geography, obviously they like the names of rivers and knowing where towns and cities are.  The reality of being a palynologist is that you’re often working in a department that specializes in something that isn’t palynology. From time to time this can be a curse, but it’s also a very exciting opportunity.

This year I had the pleasure of attending both the Ecological Society of America meeting and the Geological Society Meeting, both of which were held in Baltimore, Maryland (39.2833° N, 76.6167°W for the Geographers).  At both meetings I co-chaired a session titled “Paleoecological patterns, ecological processes, modeled scenarios: crossing temporal scales to understand an uncertain future”. The sessions highlighted the applications of paleoecology to understanding the processes of ecological and geophysical change across decadal to millennial time scales.

It really is a testament to palynologists (and paleoecologists more broadly) that neither session felt out of place in either ESA or GSA. The nature of the problems we address through our research rely on the integration of ecological knowledge and geophysical process.  Both sessions had impressive contributions from early-career researchers and established researchers, and both sessions pointed to new and unexplored avenues of research. Both sessions also showcased a bit of the flavor of the meetings themselves.  The ESA talks focused more on ecological processes, the accumulation of carbon in ecosystems, forest cover change and regional dynamics, and change within ecological systems.  At the GSA meeting there was a much heavier imprint of climate and deeper time scales.

In recent years paleoecology has become more visible to ecologists as they have begun to tackle the complex problems of predicting community change under various climate change scenarios.  At the same time, questions of carbon dynamics, vegetation-atmosphere feedbacks, and other large scale questions of relevance to geoscientists have increasingly drawn from the knowledge of paleoecologists and palynologists.  Of course, there is a long tradition of paleoecologists contributing significantly to interdisciplinary sciences. Palynologists have been using their unique view of the earth system over long time scales to help frame our understanding of the Earth’s past as far back as von Post (see Conway’s overview of von Post’s work in the New Phytologist).

Figure 2. Group photo from the First International Conference on Palynology. Palynologists have made great strides in improving gender parity since this time, but Margaret Davis is visible front center. [link from PALYNOS]
Palynology is great precisely because the people studying it continue to pursue innovative and exciting research that borrows strongly from our history as a deeply interdisciplinary discipline.  It is this interdisciplinary history that allows us to present our work to Foresters, Ecologists, Geologists, Climatologists, or Oceanographers. We have to be a little bit of all of these in order to make sense of the microscopic organic-walled microfossils that we see dancing under the microscope. [note: if they really are dancing you should cut down on the silicone oil]

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Assistant scientist in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Studying paleoecology and the challenges of large data synthesis.

4 thoughts on “The interdisciplinary study of organic walled microfossils: A ramble.”

  1. “It really is a testament to palynologists (and paleoecologists more broadly) that neither session felt out of place in either ESA or GSA.”

    Isn’t it also a testament to just how artificial these subject names are? Fields such as “ecology”, “geology”, “paleoecology”, etc. are areas that all merge together along part of their ranges. Earlier researchers would have recognised this but it’s something we seem to have lost during the late 20th/early 21st centuries, as research becomes more and more specialised. I see the value of specialisation but wish it wasn’t at the expense of a broader, more holistic view of the natural world (and our place in it).

  2. You seem to have misunderstood what Geography is, though that’s hardly surprising. The one overriding impression that I have as a trained geographer (I have a degree in Environmental Geography[1] and a PhD both from a Geography department that as a student and research scientist I called Home for about 18 years) is that we rarely use maps any more than any other scientist or person. Well, that, and the fact that the gulf between what “human” geographers and “physical” geographers do is huge.

    (And yes, I’m sure you were joking!)

    [1] so I didn’t have to take any wishy-washy human geography classes…

    1. I mean, now that you’re in a biology department I’m not surprised you don’t use maps. Presumably you’re just publishing about bears at this point. But, just to drive the point about maps home:

      Wiik et al., 2015 – Figure 1, a map.
      Orr et al., 2015 – Figure 1, a map.
      Finlay et al., 2015 – Figure S1, a map
      Goring et al., 2015 – Figure 5, a map

      and that’s just 2015!

      So tell me again how you “rarely” use maps . . . 🙂

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