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The palaeoecology of leaf chemistry

Dr Karen Bacon (SOG), Dr Fiona Gill (SEE) and Dr Graeme Swindles (SoG)

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The epicuticular leaf waxes of terrestrial plants are in part composed of long chain normal alkanes (n-alkanes), which are resistant to decomposition and commonly used biomarkers in palaeontological investigations (e.g. Schellekens & Buurman, 2011). Numerous studies have investigated variation of these biomarkers in many plant species (Bush & McInerney, 2013), but the likelihood of variation of n-alkanes and other plant leaf chemical markers (e.g. secondary metabolites, fatty acids from leaf waxes etc) driven by temperature, precipitation or other environmental variables has received little attention.  Additionally, the utility of leaf chemistry to investigate plant response to environmental change in the Quaternary has not been fully investigated (Haggi et al., 2014).

The aim of this project is to determine baseline leaf chemistry data for a range of living fossil and native UK species and investigate how these species respond to changing environmental conditions along natural climate gradients. Selected taxa will also be used to investigate their response to experimental treatments e.g. temperature change, water availability variation, CO2 level. Leaf chemistry will be compared to other leaf traits (e.g. leaf mass per area, C:N ratios etc) to determine if variations in leaf chemistry co-vary with other traits known to respond to various environmental pressures (e.g Bacon et al., 2015; Wright et al., 2004). The project will also investigate leaf chemistry markers and variations in a range of Holocene sediment and peat cores from arctic, temperate and tropical sites to determine if and how leaf chemistry tracks environmental change in these different locations over long timescales.


In this project, you will work with scientists at the University of Leeds and in botanic gardens around the UK to quantify leaf chemistry changes to temperature/precipitation gradients and to understand how these signals can be used to interpret palaeoecology.
In particular, according to your particular research interests, the studentship could involve

  1. Determining base-line leaf chemistry data for “living fossil” taxa that have previously not been fully investigated
  2. Evaluating the changes in leaf chemistry of selected taxa along climate gradients with a particular focus on “living fossil“ taxa, e.g. Gingko biloba, Araucaria araucana etc
  3. Compare leaf chemistry data to other leaf traits associated with plant responses to environmental change (e.g. leaf mass per area, stomatal size and number, carbon:nitrogen uptake etc)
  4. Conduct experiments to determine the effects of environmental variables, for example temperature, water availability, CO2 etc, on leaf chemistry and the production of secondary metabolites.
  5. Investigate the leaf chemistry signal and its utility as a palaeoecological tool in a range of Holocene sediment and peat cores from arctic, temperate and tropical biomes form a large collection housed in the School of Geography.

Potential for high impact outcome

The project will directly investigate the potential links between leaf chemistry and environmental change. This has implications for understanding how plants have responded to past environmental change and how they may respond in the near-term future, making the research timely and likely to produce several outputs, including 3–4 publications, at least one of which we anticipate being suitable for submission to a high-impact journal.


The student will work under the supervision of Dr. Karen Bacon and Dr Graeme Swindles within the Ecology and Global Change research cluster in the School of Geography and Dr. Fiona Gill in the Earth Surface Science Institute in the School of Earth and Environment. The project provides a high-level of training in (i) ecology and palaeoecology; (ii) plant biology, plant chemistry and associated laboratory skills; (iii) statistics and analytical skills. The student will be supported throughout the studentship by a comprehensive PGR skills training programme that follows the VITAE Research Development Framework and focuses on knowledge and intellectual abilities; personal effectiveness; research governance and organisation; and engagement, influence and impact. Training needs will be assessed at the beginning of the project and at key stages throughout the project and the student will be encouraged to participate in the numerous training and development course that are run within the university to support PGR students, including statistics training (e.g. R, SPSS), academic writing skills, grant writing etc ( Supervision will involve regular meetings between all supervisors and further support of a research support group.

Student profile 

The student should have a keen interest in plant biology and palaeoecology with a strong background in a physical geography, Earth sciences, plant sciences, environmental sciences or related discipline.  Strong analytical/statistical/fieldwork skills are desirable but not essential, as full training will be provided during the PhD.


Bacon et al., (2015) Can atmospheric composition influence plant fossil preservation via changes in leaf mas per area? A new hypothesis based on simulated palaeoatmosphere experiments. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology

Bush and McInerney (2013) Leaf wax n-alkane distribution in and across modern plants: Implications for palaeoecology and chemotaxonomy. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 117: 161 – 179

Diefendorf et al., (2011) Production of n-alkyl lipids in living plants and implication for the geologica past  Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta  75: 7472 - 7485

Haggi et al., (2014) On the stratigraphic integrity of leaf-wax biomarkers in loess paleosols.  Biogeosciences. 11: 2455 – 2463.

McInerney & Wing (2011) The Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum: a perturbation of carbon cycle, climate and biosphere with implications for the future. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Science 39: 489 – 516

Schellekens & Buurman (2011) n –Alkane distributions as palaeoclimatic proxies in ombrotrophic peat: The roleof decomposition and dominant vegetation. Geoderma 164: 112

Wright et al., (2004). The worldwide leaf economic spectrum. Nature. 428: 821–827.

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Botany
  • Ecology
  • Environmental science
  • Physical geography
  • Plant science