Palaeo50: The Priority Research Questions in Palaeoecology

Palaeoecological records (e.g. fossil pollen, seeds, animal remains) provide crucial insights into our understanding of key ecological and evolutionary processes, providing lessons about past ecological responses to environmental change, and the socio-ecological interactions between humans their  environments. But palaeoecologists face several challenges in the way that they process, present, and apply their data, both in the context of improving ecological understanding and for providing insights into management decisions (e.g. Froyd and Willis 2008). Participatory exercises are increasingly being used to identify key questions and emerging issues in science and policy (Sutherland et al. 2011). It was with this in mind that we organised the first such exercise in palaeoecology, in order to identify 50 priority questions to guide future palaeoecological research agendas.

The workshop was held at the Biodiversity Institute (University of Oxford) 13-14 December 2012, organised by Alistair Seddon and Ambroise Baker of LTEL, and by Anson Mackay (University College London). It was co-sponsored by the QRA, BES, PAGES and the Biodiversity Institute of Oxford. Participants included a mixture of invited experts and selected applicants from an open call. Key funding bodies and stakeholders were also represented at the workshop, including NSF, IGBP PAGES, UK NERC, and UK Natural England, with over 900 questions submitted from almost 130 individuals and research groups.

Before the workshop, a pre-screening exercise was conducted in which each workshop participant, in addition to interested parties from labs across the world, were asked to vote for their top 50 questions from the full list. The questions were then divided between six working groups, each structured around the following themes:

  • Human-environment interactions in the Anthropocene (Dr Erle Ellis*, University of Maryland)
  • Biodiversity, conservation and novel ecosystems (Dr. Lindsey Gillson*, University of Capetown, South Africa)
  • Biodiversity over long timescales (Prof. Kathy Willis, Biodiversity Institute Director, University of Oxford, UK)
  • Ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles (Prof. Ed Johnson*, University of Calgary, Canada)
  • Quantitative / Qualitative reconstructions (Dr. Stephen Juggins, University of Newcastle, UK)
  • Approaches to palaeoecology (Prof. John Birks, University of Bergen, Norway)

Working groups each had a chair (responsible for driving the process), a co-chair, (directing the voting system and editing questions), and a scribe (recording of key debates and arguments). By the end of Day 1, working groups had been asked to identify approximately 30 research questions to be taken forward into Day 2. These questions were then sent out to any member of the community who had originally submitted questions, and underwent an additional round of voting. On Day 2, the process was repeated, with each group asked to select seven priority questions and an additional 8 contender questions, and with the final 50 being decided upon by consensus during a final plenary session.

By the middle of the first morning, working groups were efficiently and ruthlessly rejecting and rewording questions to a shortened list that reflected key debates and challenges for the discipline. Discussions were often heated and stimulated many further questions not included in the final list. Undoubtedly, there were many interesting questions which could not be included, and as a result the list is in no way definitive, but at least is designed to encourage debate and discussion surrounding future research agendas. One of the biggest problems faced by participants was deciding on whether to create narrow, specific questions at risk of excluding another key idea, or broader questions from which other research questions could be developed in the future. In the original planning we had designed the workshop to cover concepts covering a wide range of timescales, ‘deep-time’, ‘ecological-time’ and decadal timescales; we hope the questions successfully reflect the diversity and the interesting discussions over the course of the two days.

The final list of questions challenged across a wide range of issues, which not only reflected the diversity of palaeoecological science today, but also the great potential that it has to offer to both applied and theoretical ecological problems. Full details of the methodology and the questions themselves will be published in a forthcoming paper. More information can be found by following @Palaeo50 on Twitter. The workshop has also been blogged about here.


Froyd, C.A. and Willis, K.J. Emerging issues in biodiversity & conservation management: The need for a palaeoecological perspective. Quaternary Science Reviews. 27: 1723–1732

Sutherland, W.J., Fleishman, E., Mascia, M.B., Pretty, J., and Rudd, M.A., 2011: Methods for collaboratively identifying research priorities and emerging issues in science and policy. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 2: 238-247.