Past forest composition, structures and processes – How paleoecology can contribute to forest conservation

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


The importance of long-term historical information derived from paleoecological studies has long been recognized as a fundamental aspect of effective conservation. However, there remains some uncertainty regarding the extent to which paleoecology can inform on specific issues of high conservation priority, at the scale for which conservation policy decisions often take place. Here we review to what extent the past occurrence of three fundamental aspects of forest conservation can be assessed using paleoecological data, with a focus on northern Europe. These aspects are (1) tree species composition, (2) old/large trees and coarse woody debris, and (3) natural disturbances. We begin by evaluating the types of relevant his- torical information available from contemporary forests, then evaluate common paleoecological tech- niques, namely dendrochronology, pollen, macrofossil, charcoal, and fossil insect and wood analyses. We conclude that whereas contemporary forests can be used to estimate historical, natural occurrences of several of the aspects addressed here (e.g. old/large trees), paleoecological techniques are capable of providing much greater temporal depth, as well as robust quantitative data for tree species composition and fire disturbance, qualitative insights regarding old/large trees and woody debris, but limited indica- tions of past windstorms and insect outbreaks. We also find that studies of fossil wood and paleoento- mology are perhaps the most underutilized sources of information. Not only can paleoentomology provide species specific information, but it also enables the reconstruction of former environmental con- ditions otherwise unavailable. Despite the potential, the majority of conservation-relevant paleoecolog- ical studies primarily focus on describing historical forest conditions in broad terms and for large spatial scales, addressing former climate, land-use, and landscape developments, often in the absence of a spe- cific conservation context. In contrast, relatively few studies address the most pressing conservation issues in northern Europe, often requiring data on the presence or quantities of dead wood, large trees or specific tree species, at the scale of the stand or reserve. Furthermore, even fewer examples exist of detailed paleoecological data being used for conservation planning, or the setting of operative restorative baseline conditions at local scales. If ecologist and conservation biologists are going to benefit to the full extent possible from the ever-advancing techniques developed by the paleoecological sciences, further integration of these disciplines is desirable.


External organisations
  • University of Bern
  • University of Maine
  • Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Geosciences, Multidisciplinary
Original languageEnglish
Article number168
Pages (from-to)116-127
Number of pages12
JournalBiological Conservation
Publication statusPublished - 2013 Sep 24
Publication categoryResearch
Externally publishedYes