Student Blog: A Week at the Museum: 2015 NERC Palaeoecology Course

My name is Rhiannon Philp and as your newly elected AEA Student Representative, it now falls to me to maintain the student blog, so I thought I would kick off proceedings with an overview of a fantastic course that I recently had the privilege of taking part in.

On the 30th November I joined 11 other researchers on a week-long NERC funded palaeoecology course hosted at the Natural History Museum. The course aimed to address the need to be able to work with complex palaeoecological datasets, introducing participants to a number of different proxies. It had been designed to fill an identified gap in current NERC-led training initiatives for Post Graduate and Early Career Researchers.

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A rare tourist free photo of Dippy

Each of the five days of the course was concerned with a different palaeoecological group. The format of the course was split between lectures in the mornings and hands on practical sessions in the afternoon. The course covered five areas of palaeoecological research: Diatoms, Pollen, Vertebrates, Chironomids and Beetles. Each topic was delivered by an expert Natural History Museum staff member. At this point, I should acknowledge the incredibly enthusiastic and informative teaching that was provided by the team behind the course. Each session was engaging and interesting whether you had some prior knowledge or were completely new to the subject matter.

On day one we were introduced to Diatoms by Dr. Tom Hill. Over the morning we were introduced to the basic morphological traits of Diatoms and their environmental preferences. The afternoon consisted of a practical focussing on identification and then interpretation of diatom data, which allowed us to come into contact with some of the museum’s extensive reference collection.

Diatoms under the microscope…

Diatoms under the microscope…

Pollen was the theme of the second day, again with Tom Hill, assisted by Dr. John Tweddle. Approached in much the same way as the previous day, we covered morphology and environment, along with preservation and distribution in the morning. This was followed up by a practical in identification and interpretation in the afternoon. Enjoyment of this session (or perhaps the competitiveness of the course participants) was clearly demonstrated when many forwent their tea break to make sure they had identified all the specimens!

Course participants getting acquainted with pollen (photo courtesy of Tom Hill)

Course participants getting acquainted with pollen (photo courtesy of Tom Hill)

Day three, led by Prof. Adrian Lister, introduced the reaction of megafaunal populations to climate change, focussing predominantly on Mammoth species. After a morning lecture session exploring the climate change vs the overkill theories, the highlight of the day (possibly even course) for the group was definitely the visit to the NHM Megafauna stores (a small cheer went round the room when the visit was announced). This was followed by a particularly interesting practical exercise comparing faunal remains from two quarry sites in order to infer their relevant environments and ages.

Interpreting faunal assemblages from quarry sites (photo courtesy of Charlotte Clarke)

Interpreting faunal assemblages from quarry sites (photo courtesy of Charlotte Clarke)

A change in scale followed on day four, as we were introduced to chironomids by Dr. Steve Brooks and Dr. Angela Self. Once again the first session covered morphology and environmental preferences and was followed by a split practical, covering picking and mounting of chironomid heads with Angela (incredibly fiddly) and identification and interpretation with Steve.

On the final day, Dr Robert Angus introduced us to beetles. Morphology and environment were explored during the first half of the day and were followed by a visit to the museum collection, which, we were reliably informed by the curator, contains between 8 and 10 million different specimens! The highlight of this visit was the viewing of specimens collected by Darwin and Wallace on their respective expeditions and mounted with cards written in their own handwriting. It was interesting to note that Wallace had focussed on larger, more exotic looking species, as he was apparently using them to fund his future expeditions.

Beetles! (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Clarke)

Beetles! (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Clarke)

The week culminated with a Q & A session, which prompted interesting discussions, amongst other things, on the assumptions made about primary drivers in palaeoecology and the use of transfer functions.

It is always interesting approaching these courses from an archaeological point of view. The majority of participants came from the more traditional palaeoecological background subjects and often examples focussed outside of my (suddenly very small seeming) archaeological timeframe. However we were all able to bring something different to the course and it helped to highlight important cross over areas, with a number of potential collaborations developing over the week.

I would like to thank NERC and the organisers at the NHM for such an insightful and enjoyable course. I would highly recommend it to PGR’s and ECR’s researching any aspect of palaeoecology, should it run again in the future.

The NERC Palaeoecology course 2015 participants at the end of a long, but highly enjoyable week! (Photo courtesy of Tom Hill)

The NERC Palaeoecology course 2015 participants at the end of a long, but highly enjoyable week! (Photo courtesy of Tom Hill)

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