Our fascination with the natural world drives us to seek deeper understanding of Earth’s unique biosphere, past, present and future. Our goal is to challenge the human-centered view of nature – a view that imposes a powerful cultural bias leading to neglect of the dynamic character of the biosphere, its previous configurations, and the fragility of the world-state in which humans evolved and now exist. The fossil record - the deep time archive of life - provides palaeontological perspectives on how organisms evolve and how ecosystems are built, broken, and rebuilt over evolutionary-, geological-, and human-timescales. Our work sheds a different light on climatological, ecological, and biodiversity crises, allowing the lessons of the past to inform current and future responses and develop solutions to these threats - threats that all life on Earth now faces.
Our priority areas
1. Deep time challenges to human-centred views of the biosphere
We tap into the fundamental human fascination with the life and ecosystems of worlds of the past. Through discovery-led science we highlight particular animals, ecological and evolutionary events as counterpoints to our own world, shedding light on how it came to be as it is. This includes new insights into the ecology and biology of ancient organisms and ancestors, and the way in which exceptionally well-preserved fossil biotas both reveal and bias our understanding of ecosystems in deep time.
2. Analytical and quantitative palaeobiology, palaeoclimate and palaeoenvironmental research
We have world leading expertise in analysis of fossils and the sedimentary deposits that contain them, developing and applying elemental and isotopic techniques, and other innovative quantitative and statistical approaches (see Infrastructure). This underpins other priority areas, but also generates powerful quantitative time-series of palaeobiological, palaeoclimatological and palaeoenvironmental changes that bridge from the present day into deep time. These palaeo-records are instrumental in understanding planetary feedback mechanisms and tipping points associated with the carbon cycle. Examples include peat accumulation and fire history in the tropics on centennial to millennial time scales; hydroclimate changes, from tropics to midlatitudes on seasonal to millennial timescales (corals, trees, lakes); impacts of recent anthropogenic global ocean temperature warming on coral reefs and river catchments; changes in arid climate landscapes in South Africa and Namibia and accurate dating of Quaternary landscapes and climate by OSL dating.
3. Palaeobiological perspectives on biosphere change in the Anthropocene
We are instrumental in bringing the approaches and methods of palaeobiology to bear on analysis and understanding of contemporary and future biosphere change, particularly through application of Anthropocene concepts. The ultimate goal is to change humanity’s relationship with the species around us to be a better one. This research includes developing deep-time predictors of ‘Anthropocene’ biosphere response and recovery, by engaging in transdisciplinary collaborations and modeling interactions across the earth sciences, social sciences, quantitative biology, ecology, and climatology. Two areas of focus: developing the concepts and practicalities of mutualistic cities for climate proof and sustainable urban futures; understanding the cradle to grave journey of plastic materials – how they are cycled, transported, degraded and buried over short, medium and long timescales.