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MSc Environmental Monitoring, Modelling and Reconstruction

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Environmental Change and Reconstruction 2: Palaeoecology in Practice

Course unit fact file
Unit code GEOG60122
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? No


This unit delivers teaching relating to the study of past environmental changes. It builds on the first semester unit Environmental Change and Reconstruction I: Concepts in Stratigraphy and Geochronology. There is a particular focus here on the theories and practical applications of Quaternary palaeoecology, the study of interactions between organisms and their environment in ecosystems of past. The unit delivers training in the application of practical skills with a focus on the generation, analysis and interpretation of palynology (pollen analysis), as well as training in the use of secondary data.


The unit aims to:

  • Provide an understanding of the scope, methods and achievements of environmental reconstruction with a special focus on the development and application of practical skills in palaeoecology
  • Teach students core concepts and scientific basis for methods in palaeoecology
  • Provide an opportunity for developing and applying field-, practical-, numerical- and digital-skills in palaeoecology
  • Develop advanced theoretical and practical capability in the application of pollen analysis commensurate with the MSc level and providing a foundation for independent dissertation research



Summary of content (subject to revision and scheduling)

1.         Introduction to Palaeoecology (lecture) [2hr]

2.         Field recovery of peat/lake sediments (day fieldtrip) [4hr]

3.         Description and characterisation of organic sediments I (lecture + lab practical) [1+1 hr]

4.         Description and characterisation of organic sediments II (lecture + lab practical) [1+1 hr]

5.         Palynology I – pollen identification (lecture + lab practical) [1+1 hr]

6.         Palynology II – pollen counting (lecture + lab practical) [1+1 hr]

7.         Palynology III – creating the pollen diagram (lecture + computer practical) [1+1 hr]

8.         Analysis of palaeoecological data I – zonation and rates of change (lecture + computer practical) [1+1 hr]

9.         Analysis of palaeoecological data II – multivariate techniques (lecture + computer practical) [1+1 hr]

10.       Analysis of palaeoecological data III – quantitative reconstruction (lecture + computer practical) [1+1 hr]


Teaching and learning methods

The classes will be delivered via a mix of lectures, laboratory sessions and practical classes. There will also be a one-day field course. Course materials will be delivered via Blackboard.


Knowledge and understanding


Describe the scope, history, aims and principal methods of palaeoecology

Describe the main features of organic deposits (peats) and relate these to past environmental conditions

Outline the different groups of palaeoecologically-important fossil groups and appraise their merits for environmental reconstruction

Identify the main pollen and spores found in British terrestrial deposits and correctly relate these to their source plants

Recall the main numerical approaches relevant for the description, characterisation and analysis of palaeoecological records.

Use key software packages (emphasis on freely available software) for plotting and analysis of palaeoeocological data.


Intellectual skills


Show a critical understanding of the nature of palaeoecological records and their interpretation in terms of environmental change

Apply critically the scientific method in the field and laboratory

Analyse and interpret numerical palaeoecological data with appreciation and understanding of the numerical methods

Summarise complex and noisy environmental datasets

Discriminate in the application of analytical approaches


Practical skills


Recovery of peat / sediment cores in the field

Stratigraphic description and sub-sampling of cores

Application of laboratory techniques for the characterisation of organic deposits (loss-on-ignition, C/N ratios)

Microscopic techniques for the identification of pollen and spores

Data handling for the creation of pollen diagrams

Numerical techniques for the analysis and interpretation of pollen data (diagram zonation, cluster analysis, ordination)


Transferable skills and personal qualities


Communication and writing skills

Cooperative learning (in a field and lab setting)

Working safely and efficiently in the field and laboratory

Numerical skills (multivariate data-handling and statistical analyses)

Digital skills (graphical presentation)

Time management and independent study

Assessment methods

Assessment activity

Length required

Weighting within unit

1. Core log diagram (following sessions 3 & 4)

1 page A4


2. Coursework essay (following sessions 1-7)

1500 words


3. Pollen analysis report (following sessions 8 & 9)

1500 words + figures and tables


Feedback methods

Written and oral feedback.

Recommended reading

  • Bennett, K.D. and Willis, K.J., 2002. Pollen. In Tracking environmental change using lake sediments (pp. 5-32). Springer, Dordrecht.
  • Berglund, B.E., 1986 (reprint 2003). Handbook of Holocene palaeoecology and palaeohydrology. John Wiley and Sons (883 p).
  • Birks, H.J.B. and Berglund, B.E., 2018. One hundred years of Quaternary pollen analysis 1916–2016. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 27(2), pp.271-309.
  • Birks, H.J.B., Lotter, A.F., Juggins, S. and Smol, J.P. eds., 2012. Tracking environmental change using lake sediments: data handling and numerical techniques (Vol. 5). Springer Science & Business Media.
  • Lowe, J.J. and Walker, M.J., 2014. Reconstructing Quaternary Environments. Routledge.
  • Stivrins, N. 2019. Principles of Palaeoecology. Amazon.


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 22
Practical classes & workshops 32
Independent study hours
Independent study 96

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Peter Ryan Unit coordinator
William Fletcher Unit coordinator

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