Application of historical context to contemporary ecological problems in the Anthropocene.

Faculty: Arts
Subject: Geographical Sciences
Year / Level: 3
Theme(s): Climate Science; Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation



This course examines how terrestrial ecosystems and environments developed over geological time scales, particularly during the Cenozoic era and its recent Quaternary period (comprising the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs) and provides a foundation on which to examine contemporary ecological problems in the Anthropocene epoch. Basic ecosystem ecology concepts such as mineral cycling, species and trophic interactions are emphasized throughout. While the temporal focus is on the Quaternary period, a longer-term context for climatic, biogeochemical and biogeographical changes since the Paleozoic era will be examined. This deep-time context informs a better understanding of potential trajectories of Earth’s systems in the Anthropocene.

The course begins with a brief background to terrestrial ecosystem ecology and other fundamental ecological and biogeographical concepts important in structuring ecosystems over long temporal and large spatial scales. It continues with an examination of paleo-ecology and -environments. The course concludes with a discussion of the policy and management challenges of altered and “novel” ecosystems in the Anthropocene, that can be informed by the paleoecological context.

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this course students will be able to:

  1. Identify the time periods on the geological time scale and the timing of key developments in life on land, particularly during the Cenozoic Era (ca. 65 mill. y.a)
  2. Explain the major ecosystem responses to environmental changes documented in the paleoecological record (geographic range changes, evolution and adaptation, extinction)
  3. Interpret the paleoecological record (e.g., pollen in lake sediments) of biogeographical distributions during glacial and interglacial cycles of the Pleistocene
  4. Synthesize the main arguments and evidence in scholarly debates about pre-historic human population interactions with environment (e.g., megafaunal extinction, domestication process and driving factors)
  5. Apply their understanding of paleo-environments and paleoecology to assess modern biodiversity policy and management dilemmas (e.g., climate change induced range shifts, ecosystem fragmentation, and invasive species). For example, evaluate current ecosystem responses in relation to historical rates, styles and thresholds of change
  6. Evaluate the scholarly literature on paleoecology and ecosystem science


Check SSC to see if the course is currently offered and if you meet pre-requisites etc.



Read a copy of the course syllabus to see reading lists, assignments, grading, and more.



Nina Hewitt

"My research explores vegetation dynamics with a focus on the impacts of human activities, including climate change."