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Chemical variations in Quercus pollen as a tool for taxonomic identification: implications for long-term ecological and biogeographical research


Muthreich, Florian et al. (2020), Chemical variations in Quercus pollen as a tool for taxonomic identification: implications for long-term ecological and biogeographical research, Dryad, Dataset,



Fossil pollen is an important tool for understanding biogeographic patterns in the past, but the taxonomic resolution of the fossil-pollen record may be limited to genus or even family level. Chemical analysis of pollen grains has the potential to increase the taxonomic resolution of pollen, but present-day chemical variability is poorly understood. This study aims to investigate whether a phylogenetic signal is present in the chemical variations of Quercus L. pollen and to assess the prospects of chemical techniques for identification in biogeographic research.




Six taxa (five species, one subspecies) of Quercus L., Q. faginea, Q. robur, Q. robur ssp. estremadurensis, Q. coccifera, Q. rotundifolia and Q. suber belonging to three sections: Cerris, Ilex, and Quercus (Denk, Grimm, Manos, Deng, & Hipp, 2017)


We collected pollen samples from 297 individual Quercus trees across a 4° (∼450 km) latitudinal gradient and determined chemical differences using Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). We used canonical powered partial least-squares regression (CPPLS) and discriminant analysis to describe within- and between-species chemical variability.


We find clear differences in the FTIR spectra from Quercus pollen at the section level (Cerris: ∼98%; Ilex: ∼100%; Quercus: ∼97%). Successful discrimination is based on spectral signals related to lipids and sporopollenins. However, discrimination of species within individual Quercus sections is more difficult: overall, species recall is ∼76% and species misidentifications within sections lie between 18% and 31% of the test-set.

Main Conclusions 

Our results demonstrate that subgenus level differentiation of Quercus pollen is possible using FTIR methods, with successful classification at the section level. This indicates that operator-independent FTIR approaches can surpass traditional morphological techniques using the light microscope. Our results have implications both for providing new insights into past colonisation pathways of Quercus, and likewise for forecasting future responses to climate change. However, before FTIR techniques can be applied more broadly across palaeoecology and biogeography, our results also highlight a number of research challenges that still need to be addressed, including developing sporopollenin-specific taxonomic discriminators and determining a more complete understanding of the effects of environmental variation on pollen-chemical signatures in Quercus.


This dataset was collected in the spring of 2018, and FTIR spectra were recorded using a Vertex 70 FTIR spectrometer (Bruker Optik GmbH) with a single reflectance-attenuated total-reflectance (SR-ATR) accessory in Summer 2018.

The raw spectra is included in the dataset and all preprocessing is documented in separate R-files.

Preprocessing consisted of 2nd derivate calculation using Savitzky Golay and extended multiplicative signal correction. 


Norges Forskningsråd, Award: PollChem 214359

L. Meltzers Høyskolefond, Award: 2017/05/LMH

Olaf Grolle Olsen Legat, Award: 2017/52/FOL