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Geoffrey Russell Coope 1930-2011


Quaternary scientist and entomologist

With the death of Russell Coope geology loses an advocate of the unity of palaeontology and neontology. A lecturer seldom equalled, he was an original thinker, ready to question received paradigms about gradualism in evolution and climate change.

Picture: Russell, with one of his ever changing menagerie of rescued animals, a falcon, one of which he trained to feature in the 'Sword and Sandals' movie The Vikings.  Photo: Allan Ashworth.

Graduating from Manchester in 1952, he completed a Master’s on rugose corals before becoming geology demonstrator at Keele. Appointment to Birmingham by Fred Shotton extended his Quaternary interests. Russell was convinced that beetles in deposits at Upton Warren were worthy of study, taking the view that, matched with modern equivalents, they provided a means of reconstructing past environments.

Overcoming suggestions that they must be contaminants, he matched like with like, finding warmth-loving insects where cold temperatures were thought to have prevailed. Not all were British species; it was 10 years before a mid-Devensian dung beetle was matched with specimens from Tibet. Aphodius holdereri proved to be one of many species to have shifted distribution radically, some eastwards to China, others southwards to the Mediterranean. It never occurred to Russell to describe a species as ‘extinct’ when so much was unknown.

His eye for detail was phenomenal. Russell met the comment that external morphology was insufficiently diagnostic and the genital armature was the only true arbiter of specificity by dissecting fossil abdomens and presenting genitalia. Publication of Chelford, where plant macrofossil, pollen and insect evidence were congruent, preceded Upton Warren, where disparity between beetles and pollen led to discord. The root of the problem was failure to understand differing rates of immigration among different taxa.

In the 1960s ‘gradualism’ prevailed, and departures were interpreted as faults in data. Russell’s ability to match fossil with living communities should have despatched this argument, but only with the publication of Greenland ice-core data was it accepted that systems ‘flipped’ from one state to another. Russell summarised late glacial temperatures of middle England in a curve that rose rapidly to present day levels, then settled back to conditions similar to those of central Finland, plunged to the cold of the Younger Dryas, before finally warming rapidly into the Holocene.

He recognised the need for a numerical approach, converting each species’ distribution into a climatic envelope, overlapping these to map a ‘mutual climatic range’ (MCR) – creating a curve remarkably similar to that which he had drawn intuitively! So original was he that even adversaries saw his contributions on insects an essential to any multidisciplinary study.

Retiring in 1993, he continued to complete work at many sites. His 220+ papers re-shaped our view of the Quaternary. Those who thought he cried wolf were won over by fossil insect evidence. When assemblages from the Early Pleistocene can be matched with modern ones, his point about instability promoting stability seems well founded.

A volume was produced in Russell’s honour in 1997 and in 2005 he won the Society’s Prestwich Medal. Birmingham University made him Honorary Professor of Quaternary Science, and Royal Holloway, Visiting Professor. He leaves his wife Beryl, a daughter and three sons.

Paul Buckland