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Change the world

24/05/2023

Pollen is one of the most powerful tools for reconstructing environmental change because it is perfectly preserved in sediments for as long as plants have been on Earth.

From left, Sediment coring using a Russian corer, students in the microscope room counting fungal spores and pollen from the Baviaanskloof. 

“A strong focus of mine is climate change and it is from the humble pollen grain that we can reconstruct how environments have changed,” says Dr Lynne Quick, a senior researcher in the African Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience (ACCP), in the Department of Botany. Her research speciality is palynology – the study of pollen and spores in living and fossil form.

She explains how the ecology and climate from the distant past provides deep time baselines of variability in natural systems that can inform current conservation and environmental sustainability efforts.

In 2018, the University tasked Dr Quick with building a pollen lab from scratch; one of the very few in South Africa. The lab is now fully operational, with two palynologists, two postdoctoral fellows and a strong final-year and postgraduate student contingent.

“The research we are currently doing on pollen in fossil deposits is strongly transdisciplinary, and includes botany, archaeology, geography, geology, all coming together to find solutions to the Sustainable Development Goals of Climate Action (SDG 13) and Life on Land (SDG 15),” says Dr Quick.

For this research they are mainly focusing on the Eastern Cape, which is an under-studied portion of the Cape Floristic Region – a global biodiversity hotspot. “At sites in areas like the Baviaanskloof we are working on different forms of proxy evidence, including fungal spores and charcoal to determine the ties to humans coming into these landscapes.

“From a palaeoclimate perspective, the dominant message from the research is the sub-regional nature of climate,” says Dr Quick. “In other words, there is great variability in how climates have changed in the Cape Floristic Region. We cannot make sweeping statements like ‘the whole of the region was doing this 10 000 years ago’. From a climate action perspective, we therefore need to be far more nuanced in how we approach climate change mitigation.”

This research is informing conceptual models for Quaternary Science in South Africa (the Quaternary period is the last 2.6 million years). Quaternary research explores environmental conditions during this period, and is key to managing processes that will influence the earth’s future.

The team is partnering with international researchers, such as Dr Saul Manzano from the University of León in Spain. Another international research collaboration is centred on analysing pollen from dassie middens – a unique archive that provides invaluable palaeoenvironmental data for southern Africa. The main collaborator is leading palaeoclimatologist Dr Brian Chase at the University of Montpellier CNRS, France.

“I have just finished analysing the pollen record from a dassie midden in the Baviaanskloof covering the last 6000 years. The data shows a distinct ecosystem change around 3000 years ago, which is likely related to a major climate shift at that time.

“We definitely must worry about climate change,” says Dr Quick. “the rate of change we are seeing over the last decade has been so much greater than the natural cycles we have studied. Humans are changing landscapes at a rate that natural landscapes can’t keep up with.”

Pollen alert

Dr Quick and her team are part of the South African Pollen Monitoring Network. “We generate pollen data on a weekly basis to supply to the medical industry. The project, led by the University of Cape Town’s Lung Institute, analyses pollen captured in the air and publishes forecasts on a weekly basis for several different parts of the country. Pollen allergies are one of the main sources of hay fever and the good news for residents of Nelson Mandela Bay is that the allergenic pollen levels are never as high here as in Johannesburg or Cape Town.”

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057
debbie.derry@mandela.ac.za