Sunday, 14 October 2012

Skomer pollen mysteries...

From a column in the Gloucestershire Echo:

"Pioneering research of all kinds is carried out at British universities. But what do the experts at the University of the Gloucestershire get up to? Here, we look at research by biology staff of the School of Natural and Social Science on the island of Skomer, off the south west coast of Wales.

From Shakespeare’s magical island in The Tempest to pirate treasure, islands have long been a focus of fascination and intrigue. For biologists, the isolation of islands can lead to unusual communities of animals and plants, and to “natural laboratories”, that can tell us a great deal about how the natural world works.

The vegetation of Skomer Island off the south west coast of Wales is mysterious because in late spring, the treeless island is carpeted with bluebells, a species normally associated with dense and ancient woodlands. In the summer, a small team of biology staff and students, led by Julia Webb and Dr Matt Wood, travelled to the Island to investigate the past.

They drilled through the soil to study pollen preserved from Skomer’s history. The team were hoping to discover the pollen of trees covering Skomer hundreds or even thousands of years ago that would explain the presence of bluebells. However, what the team found was even more interesting. There was no evidence of woodlands in the past on Skomer Island – so where did the bluebells come from?

The pollen record yielded other mysteries. Records of human occupation and evidence of agriculture can be seen in many places. However, while records show that some fields were ploughed, the researchers found no evidence of cereals growing on the island.

The team are now using radiocarbon dating to establish whether the record of pollen in the soil is continuous or whether there is a gap, caused perhaps by peat digging, that might contain the evidence for the missing trees and cereals. As Julia says, “If the dates show that the soil accumulation has been continuous it will mean that we may have to rethink some ideas of how species come to be where they are. Either way, our findings will inform future conservation management strategies for the island.”

Thanks to Friend of Skokholm and Skomer, Matt Wood, for this. He will keep us all up to date as more results emerge.

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