The basis of palaeoecological research is to use the fossil remains preserved in sedimentary deposits to investigate the origin, history and long‐term dynamics of taxa, populations, communities and ecosystems. Palaeoecological data and methods can be also be used for reconstructing past climates and other environmental factors. Palaeoecological records can 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 present 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 provide also unique insights for identifying the ancestry and naturalness of modern ecosystems, and are increasingly recognised as important sources of baseline information in ecosystem management.

Key Concepts

  • Palaeoecological research is based on studying various types of fossils preserved in sedimentary deposits.
  • Palaeoecological records can reach as far back as ecosystems have existed.
  • Palaeoecology is a synthetic field of science, integrating concepts and techniques of biology and geology.
  • Niche conservatism is one of the key issues in palaeoecology and the underlying principle in the use of fossil data in environmental reconstructions.
  • Palaeoecological records provide opportunities to investigate whether the ecological hypotheses about the species and ecosystems response patterns have been valid during the extreme changes and disturbances in the geological history.
  • In environmental reconstructions, the fossil assemblages are used to provide quantitative data about the past climatic or other environmental conditions.
  • Natural background conditions in biodiversity conservation, ecosystem management and restoration plans can be determined using palaeoecological data.

Keywords: sediments; fossils; time; ecosystems; evolution

Figure 1. A six‐step conceptual model that describes the series of processes that influence the inference of fossil data in palaeoecology. Each oval represents the processes in which information is transferred and transformed. In each processes, information is distorted or lost and the fossil records are thus normally incomplete and biased sources for studying past ecosystems. Target represents the study object, such as past vegetation assemblage; source the fossil data, such as animal megafossils or pollen; vector refers to processes by which material from the source are transported to a deposition site; diagenesis means the changes and alterations that take place on fossil material after deposition; analysis includes the actions, decisions and interpretations made by the scientists using the fossil data to investigate the target. Reproduced from Jackson 2012© Elsevier.
Figure 2. A flowchart depicting the role of biotic and geological (abiotic) components in palaeoecological research. Birks and Birks, 1980© H.J.B. Birks and Hilary H. Birks.
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. Oldfield, 2005. Reproduced by permission of Cambridge University Press.


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Juggins S and Birks HJB (2012) Quantitative environmental reconstructions from biological data. In: Birks HJB, Lotter AF, Juggins S and Smol JP (eds) Tracking Environmental Change Using Lake Sediments. Data Handling and Numerical Techniques, vol. 5, pp. 431–494. Dordrecht: Springer.

Williams JW and Jackson ST (2007) Novel climates, no‐analog communities, and ecological surprises. Frontiers in Ecology and Environment 5: 475–482.

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Seppä, Heikki(Apr 2018) Palaeoecology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003232.pub2]