Pollen assemblage richness does not reflect regional plant species richness: a cautionary tale


Correspondence author. E-mail: goring@wisc.edu


  1. Palaeoecological records of species richness spanning time intervals over which climate variables have shifted relative to one another can help reduce issues of colinearity that might affect our understanding of patterns of species richness.

  2. Fossil pollen assemblages have the potential to serve as a proxy for past plant richness because they record the presence of plant taxa. However, pollen assemblages are typically limited by low taxonomic resolution and taphonomic processes (pollen production, transport, deposition and preservation), which may degrade the degree to which pollen accurately represents vegetation communities.

  3. We combined pollen assemblages from modern lake sediments (n = 546; n = 167 in British Columbia, Canada) in the Pacific Northwest, with a detailed data base (n = 16 071) of plant presence across the province and a published record of gamma richness to test the accuracy of pollen assemblages as a proxy for regional patterns of plant richness.

  4. A generalized linear model using plant richness resolved at multiple taxonomic levels suggests taxonomic differences between plant and pollen taxa may reduce the ability of pollen richness to predict plant richness at the site level, but that this relationship is still recoverable, albeit with broad confidence intervals.

  5. Spatially explicit analysis using a generalized additive model shows that predicted plant richness has no relationship with raw pollen assemblage richness at all taxonomic levels.

  6. The taxonomic composition of the region (i.e. the ratio of wind-pollinated to insect-pollinated species) and/or the morphological specificity of the dominant pollen types in the region may play a role in limiting the reconstruction of plant richness from pollen richness. Nonetheless, we believe this study is the first to empirically test the relationship between plant and pollen richness, and fails to find a significant relationship.

  7. Synthesis. Palynological richness in itself cannot be considered a universally reliable proxy for inferring plant richness; however, broad spatial and temporal patterns of change in richness have been reported in the literature. Our findings suggest that more work is needed to understand previously reported patterns of pollen assemblage richness through time and in space. We suggest the use of functional diversity or phylogenetically based analysis may help link pollen richness to plant community richness.