GVMTPC-Tropical Forests, Climate and Land Use Through Time

Module Provider: Geography and Environmental Science
Number of credits: 20 [10 ECTS credits]
Terms in which taught: Spring term module
Non-modular pre-requisites:
Modules excluded:
Module version for: 2017/8

Module Convenor: Prof Frank Mayle

Email: f.mayle@reading.ac.uk

Summary module description:

This module aims to unravel the long-term (multi-millennial scale) history of tropical rainforests using a range of complimentary approaches and disciplines – e.g. palaeoecology, archaeology and anthropology.  This inter-disciplinary perspective integrates physical and human geography, ecology, and archaeology.  The module focuses on tropical Latin America and revolves around several key questions: 1) What have been the interrelationships between climate change, human land use (e.g. burning and agriculture), and tropical forest ecosystems through the Holocene, i.e. the last ca. 11,000 years?  2) What is the origin of current patterns of biodiversity?  3) What are the implications of this historical perspective for conservation policy and understanding the fate of tropical forests over the 21st century?  4) To what extent have past cultures/civilisations been constrained by, or benefited from, their tropical surroundings and why did they collapse?


To learn the principles and applications of tropical palaeoecology as a tool for understanding the relationship between tropical ecosystems, climate change, and human land use over millennial to Quaternary time scales, and the relevance of this long-term perspective for current debates concerning sustainability, resilience, conservation, and climate change.

Assessable learning outcomes:

By the end of this module, it is expected that you will have:

  • a systematic understanding of knowledge, and a critical awareness of the underlying principles, methods, and applications of different techniques commonly employed in tropical palaeoecology (pollen analysis, phytoliths, charcoal, and stable carbon isotopes)

  • a comprehensive understanding and practical expertise in techniques of tropical pollen identification, analysis and data presentation

  • originality in the application of knowledge, together with a practical understanding of how established techniques of research and enquiry are used to understand the contribution that palaeoecological data can make toward tropical plant ecology and conservation policy

  • the ability to critically evaluate current research and advanced scholarship in the discipline via key published literature in tropical palaeoecology

  • in depth understanding of the relevance of millennial-Quaternary-scale palaeoenvironmental time series for understanding the underlying drivers and impacts of present and future environmental change

Additional outcomes:

Students will become proficient in microscopy; appreciate the value (and challenge) of integrating different approaches, techniques and philosophies across a range of disciplines (e.g. biology, archaeology, geography/geology); critical thinking, constructing/testing hypotheses, and developing scientific arguments; team-work, debating skills, and effective written and oral communication of ideas and findings.  Students will gain first-hand experience of tropical plant species via a 1-day guided trip to Kew Gardens.

Outline content:

Lecture content includes: the principles and applications of key palaeoecological techniques (fossil pollen, phytoliths, charcoal, stable carbon isotopes) used for reconstructing the long-term (millennial-Holocene scale) histories of terrestrial tropical ecosystems (tropical forests and savannas), drawing upon case studies from the Neotropics; the implications of these palaeovegetation reconstructions for understanding tropical ecosystem ecology, carbon cycling, past climate change, and past human land use; the synergistic relationship and interactions between tropical ecosystems, climate, fire, and human societies over millennial-Holocene time scales; relevance of long-term fossil pollen records for testing Earth System models, predicting ecosystem response to future climate change, and conservation policy;  contribution of a palaeoecological perspective for understanding concepts such as vulnerability/resilience, stability/instability, pristine/anthropogenic, rates of change, thresholds, ecosystem services etc, with respect to tropical ecosystems.

Microscope-based practical classes will cover: the identification of pollen from tropical rainforest, dry forest and savannah taxa; analyses of fossil pollen assemblages from lake/bog sediment cores to reconstruct millennial-Holocene scale vegetation histories.

Global context:

In addition to a range of temporal scales from millennial to Holocene, spatial scales will range from local to regional to global.  Most case studies in the lectures will be drawn from ecosystems in the Neotropics – which are globally important in terms of biodiversity, carbon cycling and climate/hydrology. 

Brief description of teaching and learning methods:

The module comprises 12 lectures (each lasting 1 hour) and 9 hours of laboratory-based practical work (3 sessions, each lasting 3 hours).  Students will be taught microscopy skills and fossil pollen identification.  In addition to the classroom and laboratory based teaching, the students will attend a guided one-day field trip to Kew Gardens to familiarise themselves with tropical plant species (8 hours).

Contact hours:
  Autumn Spring Summer
Lectures 12
Practicals classes and workshops 9
External visits 8
Guided independent study 171
Total hours by term 200.00
Total hours for module 200.00

Summative Assessment Methods:
Method Percentage
Written exam 50
Report 50

Other information on summative assessment:

Formative assessment methods:

Class discussions. 

Penalties for late submission:
Penalties for late submission on this module are in accordance with the University policy. Please refer to page 5 of the Postgraduate Guide to Assessment for further information: http://www.reading.ac.uk/internal/exams/student/exa-guidePG.aspx

Length of examination:

2 hours

Requirements for a pass:


Reassessment arrangements:

Coursework and examination 

Additional Costs (specified where applicable):
1) Required text books:
2) Specialist equipment or materials:
3) Specialist clothing, footwear or headgear:
4) Printing and binding:
5) Computers and devices with a particular specification:
6) Travel, accommodation and subsistence:

Last updated: 31 July 2017

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