XV. International Palynological Congress (IPC) XI. International Organisation of Palaeobotany Conference (IOPC)

Terraform researchers take part in IPC/IOPC Conference in Prague, Czechia

The emerging field of trait-based paleoecology suffers from the siloing of its practitioners along multiple dimensions including the availability of infrastructure and materials, and structure-specific focus. To promote the development of a more cohesive and collaborative ‘paleo-trait’ network Will Matthaeus and Jenny McElwain led a workshop on behalf of the ERC-TERRAFORM project at IPC/IOPC 2024. Following the recent publication by McElwain et al. (2024, New Phytologist, Tansley Reviews), 28 scientists from around the world and across career stages participated in a collaborative evaluation of the potential for utilizing plant functional traits in the fossil record. Attendees gave positive feedback and new collaborations were established in the discussions that followed.

Members of the TERRAFORM project participated in IPC/IOPC field trips. One trip was made to the Pecínov, a quarry in the late Cretaceous Bohemian Basin, circa 50 km west of Prague. The locality offers a transgressional set of sedimentary bodies that allow clear identification of the paleo-coastal area, moving inland through a salt marsh, swamp, and finally into a freshwater braided river. The Cenomanian flora from Pecínov has been extensively described, with an assemblage consisting of gymnosperm and angiosperm taxa. A PhD student from our team was able to collect plant macrofossil material from this locality for future research and was eager to recount her pleasant experience, meeting senior paleobotanists in the field and listening to their epic (and very-niche) plant-fossil tales of yore. 

TERRAFORM’s two PhD students, Antonietta Knetge and Catarina Barbosa, presented their first major conference talk at IPC/IOPC in a session focused on the biotic crises of the Mesozoic.  Stepping up the plate immediately after lunch, Catarina refused to let conference attendees take a nap by showing them a cool graph and talking about it a bunch. Her talk on paleoecology and turnover in the T/J boundary of East Greenland featured carefully developed visualizations of community composition through time at South  Tancrediakløft. Antonietta then took to the stage to deliver a rousing presentation on diversity and taphonomy, using rarefaction curves to compare that same locality and Astartekløft, historically one of the most important sites for the Greenland T/J.  Both talks garnered interest, lots of questions, and collaboration requests. A great success! 

European Geoscience Union Meeting 2024

European Geoscience Union General Assembly Vienna 2024

The 5-day conference in Austria’s capital, Vienna, with over 18,000 in attendance, is the meeting that offers an invaluable opportunity for networking and knowledge exchange. Our team of researchers proudly represented the major projects from our laboratory during different sessions and participated in multidisciplinary discussions, talks and poster presentations.

Katie O’Dea presented the poster on the effects of using concrete dust on oats and barley in field conditions as a collaboration between the Terraform project and the project led by researchers at University College Dublin ICRAG.

Christos Chondrogioannis convened the enhanced rock weathering & river alkalinity enhancement for carbon dioxide removal session. The information from the meeting gave insights into the potential of a carbon capture technology, reducing GHG emissions and strived to inform decision-making on how these technologies can help with reaching the climate targets.

William Matthaeus will co-conven the Co-evolution of life biogeodynamics and trait-based paleoecology during deep time tomorrow. This session is designed to foster conversation between experts from diverse fields interested in how life and planetary processes have co-evolved over geological time.

During the peatland management and restoration session, Sate Ahmad presented his talk on small-scale associations between peat properties and microtopography in drained fen and a near-intact fen in Ireland. The presentation showcased the results of the Irish Research Council and ICRAG-funded DIVE2STORE project.

Our former lab member, Richard Nair presented his talk on how water availability controls seasonal shifts in root growth timing, during the soil-plant interactions across landforms: implications for soil functions, ecosystem patterns and services under global change session. During his talk, Richard discussed novel methods to shed light on seasonal and daily patterns of root growth and the driving mechanisms behind them.

The Plant-Climate Interaction Lab houses a new Nikon stereomicroscope

The Plant-Climate Interaction Lab houses a new Nikon stereomicroscope, supported by iCRAG and ERC-TERRAFORM, configured to create high-resolution maps of complex materials. The system uses a high optical magnification (>300x) single-optic system with a large working distance (>60 mm), a motorized stage and focus. The Discipline of Botany is the first in Ireland to procure Nikon’s Extended Depth of Focus (EDF) software, which allows micron-scale topographic reconstruction, for example, of fossiliferous rocks and leaf surfaces. These outstanding and state-of-the-art capabilities can also be combined with large image scans and modular epifluorescence to create a variety of true-to-scale spatially integrated high-quality datasets for relatively large samples (~70 mm). 

Understanding how fossilisation of plants works

A pilot project in experimental taphonomy

Researchers from the TERRAFORM team visited University College Cork in March to carry out a pilot project in experimental taphonomy with collaborator Maria McNamara. Postdoc Will Matthaeus and PhD student Catarina Barbosa are interested in testing hypotheses regarding the effect of certain aspects of the process that plant parts undergo in the transition between life and preservation in the fossil record (i.e., taphonomy). Maria is a leading expert in the interpretation of the fossil record using experimental alteration of biological materials. The group aims to develop robust interpretations of signals from the plant fossil record for use in ecosystem simulations.

New publication!

Functional traits of fossil plants

Led by Prof. McElwain, the ERC-funded TERRAFORM project team recently published a comprehensive review “Functional Traits of Fossil Plants” in the New Phytologist. The review took a unique approach, evaluating which extant plant traits offer the greatest promise for application to fossils through contemporary trait-based ecology. The focus was placed on plant functional traits and measurable properties of fossils that provide insights into the functioning of the plants in past environments.

Taking into consideration the limitations of a trait-based approach in palaeobotany, the team together with collaborators assessed over 30 extant traits in palaeobotany and ranked 26 paleo-functional traits based on taphonomic and methodological criteria that can potentially impact Earth system processes. The Tansley Review offers a new perspective on the study of extinct plants and brings insights into their functioning in the past.

The open-access publication is available online under this link.

Figures from the publication:

Figure 1. The methodological framework used to critically evaluate 30 contemporary plant traits (from Pérez-Harguindeguy et al., 2013) for their potential application to the plant fossil record as paleo-functional traits.

Figure 2. Examples of fossil plant functional traits.

Figure 3. Comparison of paleo-functional trait scores according to different weighting criteria.

"The Birth of the Modern World: Understanding Floral Dynamics during the Mesozoic"

Dr Mario Coiro's seminar visit to School of Natural Sciences

In February, we had the pleasure of hosting Dr Mario Coiro from the University of Vienna when he visited Trinity College Dublin for his School of Natural Sciences’ Research Seminar talk.

Dr Coiro is a leading botanist and paleobiologist with a passion for exploring the intricacies of evolution. With a wide range of skills, including expertise in molecular biology and an in-depth knowledge of cycads, Dr Coiro is dedicated to advancing our understanding of the natural world. In his talk “The Birth of the Modern World: Understanding Floral Dynamics during the Mesozoic”, he walked the audience through the key findings of his research, which tackles some of the most pressing questions surrounding floral group dynamics and evolutionary processes.

After the talk, the customary pizza lunch was held, and the department’s postgrads had the chance to have a more casual chat with Dr Coiro about a variety of topics ranging from cutting-edge research to how much better the weather is in Italy. Dr Coiro also took the time for one-on-one meetings with the TERRAFORM group’s PhD students. “Coming from a trait-based approach, talking to someone coming from a macroevolutionary angle broadened my perspective. Having the opportunity to pick someone’s brain like this is super valuable!” said Catarina Barbosa, a second-year PhD student.

To find out more about Dr Mario Coiro’s research please visit his blog

 Figure source: https://mariocoiro.blog/2023/06/27/a-new-view-of-cycads-in-deep-time/

Botany-Zoology Postgraduate Symposium 2024

Botany-Zoology Postgraduate Research Symposium 2024

Each year at Trinity College Dublin, the Botany-Zoology Postgraduate Symposium provides a space for students to voice their research and present their projects to the wider School of Natural Sciences.
This year’s symposium organised, among others, by Antonietta Knetge, welcomed keynote speakers Anja Murray and Dr. Cordula Scherer to share their career milestones. Anja Murray is an ecologist with a decade-long presence in Irish media ranging from broadcasting the RTÉ 1programs ‘Eco eye’, ‘Root and Branch’ to writing the weekly ‘Nature File’ on RTÉ Lyric FM as well as pieces for the Irish Examiner. Dr. Scherer is an applied marine ecologist and research fellow at the Trinity Centre for Environmental Humanities. Scherer has worked on a range of ERC and IRC-funded projects from ‘4OCEANS’, ‘NorFish’, and ‘Food Smart Dublin’ to sustainably connect a healthy marine environment to human history and culture.
This year’s symposium was judged by Dr. Richard Nair and Dr. James Barnett and the awards were given as follows:
The best 10-minute talk was awarded to Charlotte Morgan on ‘Arable Crop Production and the Threat of Herbicide Resistance’. Charlotte is in the second year of her PhD and won the best 5-minute talk award at last year’s symposium. The award for best 5-minute talk this year went to MacDara Allison for ‘The Role of Changing Ocean Currents in Plankton Transport Dynamics: Insights From Numerical Simulations and Observational Data’. Simon Benson and Emma King were awarded for audience choice for their talks on ‘Kelp Functional Traits: Alginate Evolution, Structure and Function’ and ‘Natural Capital Accounting for Windfarms’, respectively.

The Variable Light and Atmosphere Laboratory Launch

The Variable Atmosphere and Light (VAL) Lab Launch

At the beginning of February, we celebrated the launch of the Variable Atmosphere and Light (VAL) Laboratory at the Trinity Technology and Enterprise Centre in Dublin. The laboratory co-funded by the Science Foundation Ireland and Trinity College Dublin, comprises six walk-in experimentally controlled climate chambers with full control of light intensity and spectra, temperature, humidity, atmospheric composition and the diurnal cycle. The CONVIRON PGC20 plant growth chambers are instrumented with an infra-red phenotyping platform, full solar spectrum LED lights and many other state-of-the-art environmental sensors and control systems, that can simulate past, present or future climatic, atmospheric and light environments of Earth or other planets, for experimentation in plant science, geology, material sciences, engineering and astrobiology.

The grand opening of the laboratory marked the securing of the  SFI Infrastructure award back in 2015 by Prof. Jennifer McElwain, allowing the performance of high-quality scientific research and collaboration with other institutions and disciplines.

The event, attended by over 50 people, was highlighted by the speech from Ankit Verma, the Scientific Infrastructure Programme Manager at SFI, emphasizing the importance of the major founding agency in Ireland, enabling the researchers across the country to access some of the best equipment for the delivery of high-quality science. Prof. Sinéad Ryan, the Dean of Research, brought to attention the possibilities for collaboration within Trinity College and beyond, allowing excellence in innovation and research development.

For more information on the VAL Lab launch and the planned future experiments conducted in the climate-controlled plant growth chambers, see here.

Are plants Ecosystem Engineers?

Will Matthaeus presents a case to the International Biogeography Society in Prague

In the frosty early days of January, Dr Will Matthaeus went to Prague to deliver a talk at the Ecosystem Engineering Symposium organized by Kate Lyons and Amelia Villaseñor at the 11th Biennial Conference of International Biogeography Society (IBS). In a session covering everything from Edicarian bioturbation to anthropogenic impacts and rewilding—500 million years of ecosystem engineering—Will presented plants as a foundational aspect of terrestrial ecosystems and classic examples of ecosystem and landscape reorganization with plant evolutionary changes (e.g., ‘The Devonian Plant Hypothesis’). The earliest plants were little more than ‘green slime.’  These small, prostrate organisms that were limited to wet environments may still have impacted global ecosystems by altering atmospheric oxygen concentrations.  Over the course of the evolutionary transformations that led from green slime to boreal forests and savannahs, plants have likely increased the diversity and maximum effect in their impact on ecosystems. Synthesis of paleo-plant traits, among other paleontological techniques, may provide insight into this function over periods of change, upheaval, and extinction in terrestrial environments that are informative for our future. However, understanding these changes requires expertise in a broad variety of disciplines; IBS meetings are a valuable opportunity for developing the frontiers of paleoecology through new collaborations.

Members of the Terraform team take part in the first Irish Paleo Forum (IPF) in Cork

The first Irish Paleo Forum (IPF) - Cork, January 2024

On January 18th, our lab members, Antonietta Knetge, Catarina Barsboa and William Matthaeus joined fellow Irish palaeontologists for the first Irish Paleo Forum (IPF) meeting at University College Cork. The organisation of the IPF was proposed by Prof. Maria McNamara, Dr. Chris Mays, and our own, Prof. Jennifer McElwain. The forum aims to enhance the palaeontology community in Ireland by offering an open space for current research, communication and innovation. Members of Trinity College Dublin’s Plant Climate Interaction lab look forward to participating in future IPF meetings, making history in Ireland for the bright future of palaeontology.