Patterns of modern pollen and plant richness across northern Europe

Triin Reitalu*, Anne E. Bjune, Ansis Blaus, Thomas Giesecke, Aveliina Helm, Isabelle Matthias, Sylvia M. Peglar, J. Sakari Salonen, Heikki Seppä, Vivika Väli, H. John B. Birks

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Sedimentary pollen offers excellent opportunities to reconstruct vegetation changes over past millennia. Number of different pollen taxa or pollen richness is used to characterise past plant richness. To improve the interpretation of sedimentary pollen richness, it is essential to understand the relationship between pollen and plant richness in contemporary landscapes. This study presents a regional-scale comparison of pollen and plant richness from northern Europe and evaluates the importance of environmental variables on pollen and plant richness. We use a pollen dataset of 511 lake-surface pollen samples ranging through temperate, boreal and tundra biomes. To characterise plant diversity, we use a dataset formulated from the two largest plant atlases available in Europe. We compare pollen and plant richness estimates in different groups of taxa (wind-pollinated vs. non-wind-pollinated, trees and shrubs vs. herbs and grasses) and test their relationships with climate and landscape variables. Pollen richness is significantly positively correlated with plant richness (r = 0.53). The pollen plant richness correlation improves (r = 0.63) when high pollen producers are downweighted prior to estimating richness minimising the influence of pollen production on the pollen richness estimate. This suggests that methods accommodating pollen-production differences in richness estimates deserve further attention and should become more widely used in Quaternary pollen diversity studies. The highest correlations are found between pollen and plant richness of trees and shrubs (r = 0.83) and of wind-pollinated taxa (r = 0.75) suggesting that these are the best measures of broad-scale plant richness over several thousands of square kilometres. Mean annual temperature is the strongest predictor of both pollen and plant richness. Landscape openness is positively associated with pollen richness but not with plant richness. Pollen richness values from extremely open and/or cold areas where pollen production is low should be interpreted with caution because low local pollen production increases the proportion of extra-regional pollen. Synthesis. Our results confirm that pollen data can provide insights into past plant richness changes in northern Europe, and with careful consideration of pollen-production differences and spatial scale represented, pollen data make it possible to investigate vegetation diversity trends over long time-scales and under changing climatic and habitat conditions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1662-1677
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2019


  • climate
  • diversity
  • Holocene
  • landscape
  • palynological diversity
  • pollen–plant relationship
  • Quaternary


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