Research published this year by University of Leeds PhD student Matthew Pound and his co-workers has presented a global vegetation reconstruction for the Late Miocene (11.61-7.25 Million years ago) that suggests a wetter and warmer world at that time. Part of Matthew's research was carried out at the Museum, consulting a vast database of palynological biodiversity compiled over his long career by Palaeontology Department Scientific Associate Dr John Williams.
The above model shows the present day vegetation model (with interpretations for densely populated areas) and a vegetation model for the Late Miocene below (Image courtesy of Matthew Pound).
Pound used John Williams's index to compile a list of published references and species of spores and pollen from worldwide geological sites of Miocene age. Vegetation is very sensitive to climate and therefore the distribution of vegetation can tell us what a climate in the geological record was like.
John Williams consulting his Index of Palaeopalynology (JWIP). (Image courtesy of Dr Susanne Feist-Burkhardt)
Climate models can also predict the distribution of vegetation, so if we have a good data set of fossil vegetation we can evaluate the predictive ability of climate models. This will hopefully show any problems in them, as we will rely on these models to show us the future of global climate change, said Pound.
Without John’s collections he would have only half the data he has now which would not have been enough to accurately evaluate climate model predictions. Thanks to John’s collections he has a dataset of over 600 fossil vegetation sites from a ten million year period.
John Williams with some of the 23,000+ references he consulted to compile his database. (Image courtesy of Dr Susanne Feist-Burkhardt)
John started compiling his index when he was working as a Research Palynologist for BP at Sunbury and continued, first as a Consulting Research Scientist here at the Museum and after he retired, as a Scientific Associate in the Department of Palaeontology. The Index is known as the John Williams Index of Palaeopalynology and is added to on a daily basis by John.
The comprehensive index cross references fossil names, geological age, country and author relating to all palynological groups including spores, pollen and other types of oceanic organic plankton like the dinoflagellate cysts. It is unrivalled as it was compiled by only one person and therefore provides an accurate and consistent interpretation of the literature. It also draws heavily on the scientific information locked away in the unique library collections at the Museum and includes data from some very obscure publications that are not widely available to academic researchers.
Matthew Pound's research is funded by NERC and the British Geological Survey University Funding Initiative, and hosted at the University of Leeds. He hopes to continue to study climate change models as a post-doc and plans to make further use of John's Index of Palaeopalynology. John's index has also been extremely helpful in providing information to manage the Museum palynology collections but is available to any scientific enquirers on request.