Oxford Long-Term Ecology Lab

Long-Term Ecology, Biodiversity Conservation, and Environmental Stewardship Technologies

Twitter: @ElizSJeffers

ORCID: 000-0001-9679-5909

Academic Profile

I work at the intersection of palaeo-, ecosystem and community ecology to answer exciting and pressing questions about how terrestrial ecosystems cope with long-term climate and environmental change. I am a PI in the Oxford Long Term Ecology Lab, member of the Mathematical Ecology Research Group and hold a Departmental Lectureship in Long-Term Ecology. I am also the Course Director for the Oxford Doctoral Training Partnership in Environmental Research.

Jeffers Research Profile Image

I held a James Martin Research Fellowship in the Dept. of Zoology at Oxford. During this time, I developed projects on progressive nitrogen limitation and the ecological consequences of mega-herbivore extinctions. Prior to that, I held a PDRA with Prof. Kathy Willis to develop the Local Ecological Footprinting Tool (LEFT), a web-based tool that allows companies and governments to estimate the potential ecological cost of developing individual parcels of land. I obtained my D.Phil. from the University of Oxford for work in the Long-Term Ecology Laboratory and Mathematical Ecology Research Group on inferring past ecosystem function from statistical analysis of palaeoecological time-series.  Before moving to Oxford, I studied at the Johns Hopkins University,  where I earned a MA in Geography & Environmental Engineering and a Masters of Public Policy. I also have a BA in Political Science from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Current Research

I lead research into the impacts of global environmental change on geochemical cycling in terrestrial ecosystems, how this variability impacts the quality of forage plants and in turn alters the fitness of large bodied consumers. This research involves the collection and modelling of long-term ecological data from natural archives including sedimentary deposits, tree rings and fossil bones. I lead a number of research projects (described below) and invite applications from doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers who are interested in these or related topics.

Plant-derived Toxins and Climate Change

How does rising atmospheric carbon dioxide and climate change affect the amount of toxins produced by plants? I am developing a new palaeoecological proxy for plant-derived toxin production that will be used to assess the influence of long-term changes in climate and resource availability on the amount of toxic biominerals produced by plants in natural ecosystems. This work is funded by a Royal Society Research Grant (RG160094).

Palaeo-Trophic Cascades

What are the consequences of large herbivore species losses for ecosystem processes? The fossil record is being used to track the ecological consequences of Late Pleistocene declines in large-herbivore populations. Ecosystem dynamics are reconstructed from a number of palaeoecological sources while mechanistic modelling of these data provide unique insights into the cascading effects of consumer extirpations on key ecosystem processes. Previous work has been published in New Phytologist, and Journal of Ecology while a new programme is being developed to investigate the complex interactions between plant and herbivore population dynamics and changes in terrestrial N availability and climate. Our latest paper has been published in Ecology Letters.


Is nitrogen (N) availability to plants increasing or decreasing over time?  Global environmental changes such as N deposition, climate warming and increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations are driving complex changes in N cycling within ecosystems.  The Progressive Nitrogen Limitation (PNL) hypothesis posits that as atmospheric CO2 concentrations increase, plants will become increasingly nitrogen-limited; this will have strong negative impacts on primary productivity of ecosystems worldwide.  A global synthesis of stable nitrogen isotope (δ15N) records has been conducted in order to test the PNL hypothesis for both recent and ancient periods of increasing atmospheric CO2.  Our results, which were published in Nature, demonstrated that long-term declines in N availability are an important but overlooked negative consequence of rising carbon sequestration within terrestrial plants and soil organic matter. Collaborators on this project include Kendra McLauchlan, and Joseph Craine (Kansas State University) and Joseph Williams (Aberystwyth).

Long-term population and ecosystem ecology

How does global and local environmental change affect plant populations, communities and ecosystem functioning?  Palaeoecological data allow us to extend our ecological “observations” to millennia and beyond.  This long-term view offers an essential perspective on how ecosystems change in response to both slow and fast drivers.  Growth in the number of palaeoecological proxies available for environmental reconstructions and the development of novel modelling methods enables us to test hypotheses about the mechanisms underlying long-term ecosystem changes.  Statistical modelling approaches developed by Mike Bonsall in the Mathematical Ecology Research Group are used to answer questions such as how do individual populations contribute to ecosystem functioning and how resilient are these links between populations and ecosystem functions to perturbations and long-term shifts in the environment?

Palaeo-ecosystem service research

How might the provision of important ecosystem services change over time given global and local environmental changes?  There are a number of ways in which palaeoecological data have already been used to understand the provision of ecosystem services over time; yet they are largely missing from the international and national ecosystem assessments, which aim to answer this important question.  Palaeoecological data are available at the high spatial and temporal resolution needed to support policy making for the sustainable management of biodiversity and ecosystem services.  Incorporating palaeoecological research into ecosystem assessments and landscape planning for ecosystem service provision requires coordinated efforts to (1) promote the use and interpretation of new palaeo-proxies; (2) develop modelling techniques for translating raw palaeoecological data into the currencies used by ecosystem managers; and (3) make the information collected in palaeo-databases accessible and useful for landscape planning tools. We have published a useful review of the types of palaeoecological records currently available that provide a much-needed temporal record of ecosystem processes and services – and their response to complex environmental changes. This project was kick-started with a workshop entitled Landscape Planning for the Future, funded by the Oxford Martin School and PAGES.

Local Ecological Footprint Tool (LEFT)

Roughly 12% of the earth’s land area is currently protected from development; how can we develop the remaining 88% while protecting biodiversity and key ecosystem processes? The LEFT is a simple and transparent decision support tool that aims to help businesses make more informed choices about where to place facilities with minimal ecological impacts.  The LEFT was co-developed by Dr. Jeffers, Kathy Willis and Carolina Tovar to make use of readily available, web-based spatial data and existing algorithms to provide estimates of differences in ecological value across a landscape.

ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-9679-5909


Course Convenor and lecturer for ‘Ecology of Terrestrial Ecosystems: Past, Present & Future’, Biological Sciences, 3rd Year Option Course.

Earth System: Biodiversity, Ecology and Evolutionary Processes, DTP in Environmental Research

Theory & Application of Proxies in Environmental Research, DTP in Environmental Research.

Stable Isotope Tracers in Environmental Systems, DTP in Environmental Research

Communicating Research, DTP in Environmental Research

Ecosystem Valuation, Biodiversity & Conservation Management MSc (2011-2012)

Selected Publications