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Pollen snapshots of forests capture environmental change

January 14, 2013

Pollen snapshots of forests capture environmental change

Researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and STRI compared pollen trapped in funnels on Barro Colorado Island with information about plants growing in the immediate area

Researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and STRI compared pollen trapped in funnels on Barro Colorado Island with information about plants growing in the immediate area to see if pollen samples are good indicators of forest response to environmental change. Pollen samples collected over a long period from a protected forest, detailed information about the composition of the plant community, in addition to long-term climate data and an extensive pollen reference collection, made it possible for the team to conclude that pollen is an excellent tool for characterizing seasonal and yearly changes in tropical plant reproduction.

“This is one of the first looks at how the profile of airborne Neotropical pollen changes over the course of the season and across a decade,” added Surangi Punyasena, assistant professor of plant biology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who supervised graduate student Derek Haselhorst, the lead author of the study. Staff scientist Carlos Jaramillo noted that this project “underscores the value of long-term tropical research that only STRI can do.”

Enrique Moreno, research assistant at STRI's Center for Tropical Paleontology, who collected several hundred pollen samples during the 10-year study, agrees. “There aren't many places where we can do a study like this.”

Paleontologists use layers of ancient plant pollen trapped in sediments to determine what tropical landscapes may have looked like millions of years ago. Because there is so much variability in pollen samples from year to year, the authors of this study also recommend that more than seven years of modern pollen data should be pooled in order to make reliable comparisons between the overall composition of ancient forests and forests of today.

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