The basis of palaeoecological research is to use the fossil remains preserved in sedimentary deposits to investigate the history and long‐term dynamics of taxa, populations, communities and ecosystems. Palaeoecological methods can also be used for reconstructing past climatic conditions and other environmental factors. Palaeoecological records extend from years to millions of years and can therefore be used for testing the hypotheses of neo‐ecology and biogeography under environmental conditions different and more extreme than in the modern Earth. Palaeoecology provides often the only means to investigate species macro‐ and microevolutionary patterns or rates of speciation and extinction, and slow ecological processes, such as the rise and fall of ecosystems and biomes, species adaptation or migration, and population growth or decline rates. Palaeoecological records also provide unique insights for identifying the ancestry and naturalness of modern ecosystems and are increasingly recognized as sources of baseline information in ecosystem management.

Key concepts:

  • Ecosystem dynamics over long‐time periods, niche conservatism, hypothesis testing, transfer functions, background for ecosystem management.

  • Biography information: Heikki Seppä has written the text. He is a Quaternary palaeoecologist and palaeoclimatologist.

Keywords: sediments; fossils; time; ecosystems; evolution

Figure 1.

The space and time scales of palaeoecology. Delcourt and Delcourt (1993). Reproduced with permission from Springer. Delcourt HR and Delcourt PA (1993). Quaternary Ecology. 242pp. London: Chapman & Hall.

Figure 2.

A flow chart depicting the role of biotic and geological (abiotic) components in palaeoecological research. Reproduced with permission from Birks HJB and Birks HH (1980). Quaternary Palaeoecology. 289 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Figure 3.

The dynamics of Sahara, a subtropical desert biome during the last 10 000 years. The aeolian dust record reflects the mid‐Holocene replacement of savanna vegetation by the modern desert vegetation. This coincides with the vegetation and precipitation decline simulated by an earth system model of intermediate complexity and is ultimately caused by decreasing summer solar radiation and weaker summer monsoon in the region. Reproduced with permission from Cambridge University Press. Oldfield F (2005). Environmental Change. Key Issues and Alternative Perspectives, 363 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Figure 4.

Woodrat body size changes as a function of changing climate, an example of microevolutionary adaptation on millennial time scale during the late‐Quaternary. The body size changes are reconstructed from the fossil faecal pellets. Smith FA, Betancourt JL and Brown JH (1995). Evolution of body size in the woodrat over the past 25 000 years of climate change. Science270: 2012–2014. Reproduced by permission of AAAS.


Further Reading

Bennett KD (1997) Evolution and Ecology. The Pace of Life. 241pp. Cambidge: Cambridge University Press.

Birks HJB (1995) Quantitative palaeoenvironmental reconstructions. In: Maddy D and Brew JS (eds) Statistical Modeling of Quaternary Science Data. Technical Guide 5, pp. 161–254. Cambridge: Quaternary Research Association.

Birks HJB and Birks HH (1980) Quaternary Palaeoecology, 289pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Delcourt HR and Delcourt PA (1993) Quaternary Ecology, 242pp. London: Chapman & Hall.

Flessa K and Jackson ST (2005) Forcing a common agenda for ecology and palaeoecology. Bioscience 55: 1030–1031.

Holt RD, Barfield M and Gomulkiewicz R (2005) Theories of niche conservatism and evolution. Could exotic species be potential tests? In: Sax DF, Stachowicz JJ and Gaines SD (eds) Species Invasions. Insights into Ecology, Evolution and Biogeography, pp. 260–290. Sunderland: Sinauer Associates.

Hutchinson GE (1978) An Introduction to Population Ecology. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jackson ST and Overpeck JT (2000) Responses of plant populations and communities to environmental changes of the late Quaternary. Palaeobiology 26: 194–220. Supplement.

Oldfield F (2005) Environmental Change. Key Issues and Alternative Perspectives, 363pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith FA, Betancourt JL and Brown JH (1995) Evolution of body size in the woodrat over the past 25 000 years of climate change. Science 270: 2012–2014.

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How to Cite close
Seppä, Heikki(Sep 2009) Palaeoecology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003232]