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EPD Surface Samples

On this page: An introduction to pollen surface samples


The EPD now includes modern pollen surface samples in their own database, the EMPD

The development of publicly-accessible databases of fossil pollen data in the last 20 years such as the European Pollen Database (EPD) (, have provided scientists with an unrivalled source of information to study past changes in terrestrial vegetation, land-cover and climate at large spatial scales over the Quaternary period. Interpreting this fossil pollen record however requires a clear understanding of the relationship between pollen as the proxy, and the environmental parameter (vegetation, land-cover, climate) that the pollen proxy represents. Understanding this relationship has largely been achieved through the use of modern pollen surface samples.

There is a pressing need from the European scientific community for a standardised, fully documented and quality-controlled dataset of modern pollen samples which can be openly accessed, and to which scientists can also contribute and help maintain. After a major community based effort starting in 2011 we have now established a modern surface sample database within the EPD that contains almost 5000 samples. The European Modern Pollen Database (EMPD) is available to download by following the links at the bottom of the EMPD stage 1 page.

We are now attempting a second stage of expansion to further increase the size of the EMPD

Following the EPD Open Meeting at CEREGE, France in June 2016, it has been decided to build on the success of the EMPD by initiating a second stage of expansion. We are therefore again encouraging European palynologists to submit their modern surface samples to the database. More details are on the EMPD stage 2 page.

Why are pollen surface samples useful?

Surface samples have been widely used to study past vegetation, land-cover and climate

1) Reconstructions of past climate. Pollen surface samples are used to calibrate and/or evaluate almost all pollen-based climate reconstruction techniques including: taxa-based modern analogues (Cheddadi et al 1998), pft-based modern analogues (Davis et al 2003), response surfaces (Huntley 1993), PLS regression (Seppa et al 2004, Finsinger et al 2007, Bjune et al 2010), neural networks (Peyron et al 1998), Bayesian approaches (Haslett et al 2006), as well as inverse modelling methods using vegetation models such as BIOME4 (Wu et al 2007), and LPJGUESS (Garreta et al 2009). Surface samples have also been used to evaluate pollen-climate reconstructions of altitudinal temperature gradients (Ortu et al 2010), reconstructions from marine sediments (Nebout et al 2009) and the climatic tolerances of specific taxa (Ninyerola et al 2007).

2) Integration with vegetation models. A growing realisation of the link between the climate system and the terrestrial biosphere has seen the development of vegetation models and their integration with the pollen record of past vegetation change. This has been based on the concept of compatible units based on Biomes and Plant Functional Types (or Traits) developed within projects such as BIOME6000 (Prentice et al 2000), that have been evaluated using surface pollen samples over the European region (Prentice et al 1996, Roberts etc) and the Former Soviet Union (Tarasov et al 1998, Mokhova et al 2009). Surface samples have also been used to develop and refine these techniques in a number of other European studies, including the relationship between plant traits and climate (Barboni et al 2004), and the probabilistic assignment of plant attributes and biomes (Gachet et al 2003, Gritti et al 2004). A different but related application of surface samples has also been to evaluate the ability of niche-models to reconstruct past changes in the distribution of individual plant taxa in response to climate change (Pearman et al 2008).

4) Quantitative estimates of past (anthropogenic) land-cover. Vegetation models provide quantitative reconstructions of land cover, but reconstructions of land cover from pollen data is subject to bias associated with differences in pollen productivity between taxa and differences in size of source area between different pollen sites. Pollen surface samples have been essential in developing techniques to allow us to correct for this bias in projects such as POLANDCAL (Gaillard et al 2008), and the ongoing LANDCLIM project (Soepboer et al 2007, Gaillard et al 2010, Hellman et al 2008). They have also been used together with satellite-derived estimates of woodland vegetation cover to quantify past changes in woodland cover from fossil pollen data (Tarasov et al 2007).

5) Delimitation of forest boundaries. Altitudinal and latitudinal changes in forest boundaries have often been interpreted in the fossil pollen record as a proxy for climate change. The free dispersal of pollen either side of this boundary make defining this limit from the pollen record difficult. Pollen surface samples, often together with macrofossils, have been used to investigate this problem in areas such as the forest-steppe boundary (Tarasov et al 1998, Djamali et al 2009), forest-tundra boundary (Gervais & MacDonald 2001), steppe-forest-tundra boundaries (Pelánková et al 2008, Pelánková & Chytry 2009) and the mountain timberline (Conner et al 2004).

6) Investigation of taphonomic problems. Pollen surface samples have also been used to investigate the process of pollen deposition in different sedimentary environments in Europe, including marine sediments (Cundill et al 2006, Naughton et al 2007, Beaudouin et al 2007), coprolites (Carrion 2002), cave sediments (Carrion et al 2006) and comparisons of tauber trap sampling versus moss polsters (Pardoe et al 2010). 7) Interpretation of the fossil pollen record. Investigating past vegetation, land-use and ecosystem change using fossil pollen data can be greatly aided by using modern pollen surface samples to understand how they are represented in the pollen record. This approach has been widely applied in Europe, for example, in Alpine environments (Court-Picon et al 2006), boreal forest (Pisaric et al 2001), Central European mountains (Tonkov et al 2001), Middle East Desert (El-Moslimany 1990), Olive sylviculture (Vermoere et al 2003), Fen Carr (Waller et al 2005, Binney et al 2005), Mediterranean woodlands (Lopez-Saez et al 2010) and wetlands (Amami et al ), Hedera woodlands (Bottema 2001), temperate open-woodlands (Bunting 2002) and wetlands (Zhao et al 2006), as well as areas of anthropogenic land-use (Behre 1981, Hjelle 1998, Gaillard 2007, Court-Picon et al 2006, Cugny et al 2010).

A brief history of surface sample datasets

Here are some examples of the main surface sample datasets for Europe that have been used in the past:

Huntley & Prentice 1988

The pioneering pollen-climate reconstruction of Huntley & Birks (1988) used core top samples from Huntley & Birks (1983) Atlas of Past and Present Pollen Maps for Europe 0-13000 Years. These were mainly digitised from published diagrams.

Huntley 1990

The same digitised Huntley & Prentice (1988) dataset was also used in later studies.

Prentice et al 1996

The BIOME6000 project used a combination of the Huntley & Birks (1988) digitised data, plus raw count surface samples from Morocco, Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey mainly collected by F. Saadi, J. Belmonte, V. Ruis-Vasquez & Sytze Bottema (from Guiot et al 1993) and Brian Huntley (from Huntley 1994).

Cheddadi et al 1997

This study used a combination of Huntley & Birks (1983) digitised data, plus other core top samples from the newly established EPD.

Cheddadi et al 1998

The climate reconstruction for the site of Tigalmamine in Morocco used raw count surface sample data from Morocco, Spain and Italy as also used in Prentice et al 1996.

Barboni et al 2004

This study used only raw count data, compiled from a variety of sources, including EPD core tops, surface samples as shown in Prentice et al 1996, plus additional surface samples from individual contributors. Note that this location map is not shown in the publication.

Feurdean et al 2008

The large dataset used in this study is a combination of Prentice et al (1996) (digitised data) with additional data from Peyron et al (1998), Klotz (1999) and Klotz et al (2003).

Bordon et al 2009

Perhaps the largest dataset of raw pollen counts has been compiled by Odile Peyron and colleagues, which includes a core of raw count data used in earlier studies, plus additional data from throughout Eurasia.

Problems with existing datasets

Problems include digitised data, lack of documentation, poor geo-referencing, sample selection and spatial coverage..

Existing datasets of European surface pollen data have been compiled by individuals and research groups for specific research purposes and contain a number of significant problems, not least the fact that they are often poorly documented and therefore difficult to audit. The large datasets of Guiot (eg Prentice et al 1996, Feurdean et al 2008) and Huntley (eg Prentice et al 1996, Allen et al 2002, 2009) both contain large amounts of percentage data digitised by hand from published pollen diagrams that are based on non-standardised pollen sums, often including only select taxa, and subject to digitisation errors. Much of this includes old core-top data collected by Huntley & Birks (1983), which includes sites with poor dating control. Even where this older percentage data has been removed, errors have been identified including duplicate samples, errant geo-referencing (often in conversion from analogue or UTM to decimal) and poor sample selection (for instance core top samples selected on the basis of sample number, not age). Even in the best available datasets meta-data is incomplete so that many important details are missing, such as information about the site/sample, sampling method, and geophysical data. There are also many areas of Europe that are simply not represented in these datasets.

The EPD surface sample database

A workshop in September 2011 will establish a new public surface sample database as part of the EPD

Around 2400 samples have already been collected on behalf of the EPD, while a further 4800 have been pledged by European palynologists (although we expect around 1000 of these to be duplicates).

surface_samples_figure_2.jpg *Note: 16. Filipa Naughton is now at LNEG (Portugal)

The workshop will need to complete a number of tasks in order to assimilate this data into a single, well-documented and quality controlled database:

1) Taxonomy harmonisation. Different pollen analysts often adopt their own taxa naming conventions. All the data entered into the EPD need to be harmonised so as to conform to a standardised taxonomy.

2) Georeferencing. UTM and analogue latitude/longitude co-ordinates need to be converted to decimal latitude/longitude. All sample co-ordinates will be checked using Google Earth and cross-checked against site altitude using a high resolution Digital Terrain Model. Semi-automatic routines have already been prepared for this task.

3) Core top selection and age-control. Core-top samples from existing fossil pollen records in the EPD will also be included as surface samples. A recent comprehensive review of EPD chronologies will help identify these samples.

4) Meta-data compilation. Detailed meta-data needs to be included, in some cases requiring datamining of the literature. This includes type of sample and sampling method (core top, moss polster, soil, tauber-trap, single sample, merged samples etc), site details (lake, bog, surface area, surrounding vegetation etc), authorship and publications.

5) Database entry. Data has been provided for the database in different structures and file formats. This needs to be assimilated into standardised tables compatible with existing EPD table formats.

6) General quality control. Further checks need to be undertaken for duplicates, percentage data, samples with low counts, and unusual values.

7) Additional data. It is also intended to provide additional information for each site such as climatic values (used in pollen-climate reconstructions) and standardised land-cover descriptions (used in land-cover reconstructions). These will be generated from existing high-resolution gridded climate (CRU) and land-cover (GLCC) datasets and stored in separate working tables.

The EPD needs your help!

We need surface sample data and we need people to help in the compilation process

The workshop is only one small part of the process. The most important part is the submission of data. If you have surface samples or core-top samples you are willing to share, no matter how big or small, then please send them in. We need the following information with the pollen data:

1) Author/Analyst and contact address & email
2) Any references/publications relating to the samples
3) Location (Latitude, Longitude, Altitude)
4) Type of sample (eg core top from lake/bog, moss polster, soil sample etc)

The following would also be useful:

5) Site description (type of site eg lake or bog etc, physical setting eg valley bottom, mountain top etc)
6) Size of site (eg hectare of lake or bog)
7) Surrounding vegetation
8) Collection method (eg trap, corer, assimilation of multiple-samples from area etc)

We welcome any data from Europe (including Russia), the Middle East and North Africa, and including marine data.

If at all possible, please download a copy of the metadata file and fill in all relevant fields accordingly.

Submissions for the first version of the database are now closed. Any data submitted will instead be made available in original form via FTP site until the first official update to the database occurs.


If you would like to help, or wish to submit data, please contact Basil Davis: basil.davis(at)


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