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Conservation Paleobiology: Science and Practice

xdfgjFor centuries it was axiomatic that understanding the present is key to understanding the geological past. Geoscientists have awakened, however, to the realisation that mankind has had an enormous effect on the present, whole ecosystems being impacted during at least historical times. Conservation ecologists have likewise realised that their own work is severely challenged by anthropogenic impacts. Modern ecosystems, on which ecologists and palaeoecologists alike have long modelled their work, are under great and unique stresses due to anthropogenic pressures. Habitats are being destroyed and climates are changing rapidly. How, then, should conservationists respond to such pressures? How can they maintain ecosystems while changing abiotic pressures (water supply, temperature) are affecting those ecosystems? What should the conserved or restored ecosystems look like? And how might palaeoecologists contribute to this work?

Conservation palaeobiology can assist by determining the past nature of present ecosystems, and so ascertaining what their normal state should be. This subject matter is the crux of this book, an expanded reprint of the proceedings of a short course titled Conservation Biology, Using the Past to Manage the Future. Given that 24 of the 26 authors are from the USA, a North American bias is to be expected. Nevertheless, the authors do an interesting job of assessing different ecosystems (terrestrial, aquatic, marine) at different time scales. They use geochemical, body and trace fossil evidence to suggest how we might use knowledge of ancient ecosystems and their food webs to manage and preserve present day ones. They also address the issue as to whether past ecosystem states are suited to our modern and changing climate.

This book abounds with case studies. Smol argues that we should assess what aquatic nutrient levels were prior to European style agriculture, and aim to restore such levels. He implicitly assumes that the First Nations people had no impact. Conversely, Jackson and McClenachan argue that historical records are too short, pre-Columbian humans having impacted marine tetrapod, fish and mobile invertebrate faunas. The subject of Pleistocene rewilding – the need to look back at the last interglacial – is addressed, as is the impact of the loss of megafauna on such projects. Near natural habitats existing only in isolated national parks, the authors discuss assisting migration between them. The fossil record is used to suggest what should be moved where, and at what rate. The final chapter is an informative round-table discussion. This fascinating book is a must read for all involved with palaeobiology, ecology and environmental management. 

Reviewed by Brent Wilson

CONSERVATION PALEOBIOLOGY: SCIENCE AND PRACTICE, by DIETL, G. P. AND FLESSA, K. W. (Eds), 316 p. Published by The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 978-0-226-50672-2, £30.00. W: