Canadian Association of Palynologists


Traverse, Alfred, 1988

600 pp. Unwin Hyman, Boston, USA.
$75 USD Hbk., $34.95 USD Pbk.

Reviewed by Alwynne B. Beaudoin,
Archaeological Survey of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada,
in CAP Newsletter 11(2):23-25, 1988.

Paleopalynology book coverThis substantial tome by the noted palynologist Alfred Traverse of Pennsylvania State University is intended as a teaching text for laboratory-based courses in paleopalynology at the University level. It consists of a broad general survey of this highly diverse field, arranged into 18 chapters, followed by an appendix and glossary.

The first five chapters present an overview of the field. Some major topics discussed include definitions, a short history of the discipline, a discussion of the different types of palynomorphs, a survey of plant life-cycles emphasising the role played by pollen and spores, and an exposition of pollen and spore morphology. This comprises the introductory or methodological section of the text. In this and subsequent sections, I particularly like the historical perspective on the development of the discipline, complete with photographs and some biographical information on some prominent practitioners.

The next eleven chapters consist of a survey of the field of paleopalynology in geochronologic order, beginning with acritarchs in the Precambrian in Chapter 6 and concluding with "Holocene interglacial palynology" in Chapter 16. Each chapter consists of a survey of the main palynomorphs of that time period together with a consideration of major research themes, supported by extensive references to the literature. Throughout the book, the writing style is discursive and chatty. Occasionally, passages read as through they have been transcribed directly from lecture notes, for example, "I would now like to summarize the salient features" (p. 43).

The chapters also contain illustrations, drawings, and photographs of major and representative taxa discussed. These illustrations are predominantly photomicrographs and SEM images. A few TEM images are included, particularly in Chapter 5 on morphology and structure. Because palynology is such a visual discipline, and pattern recognition plays such a large role, the opportunity to compare illustrations of major types is valuable. Unfortunately, I found some of the drawings rather indistinct, although this may be simply a fault in the reproduction. Owing to the attempt to illustrate as wide a range of types as possible, many pages contain two dozen or more small photographic images. Thus, although the general impression of diversity is conveyed, the pictures are often too small to clearly distinguish details. In addition some images are rather blurred. The captions for these illustrations often spread over several pages and are in very fine print. Thus captions may be divorced from their illustrations. Scale bars, too, may only appear once which is frustrating when the illustration spans several pages (e.g., Figure 5.7). This necessitates much page turning and makes it difficult to study and compare the images. I also feel that many of the figure captions are too long and contain discussion material that would be better included in the main text (e.g., Figures 17.4, 17.6, and 17.7). My personal preference here for palynomorph illustrations is for few images, say only six or eight, on a pages, with some indication of scale and the captions directly beneath their images. I suspect, however that this may be more difficult and expensive from a production viewpoint.

The methodological emphasis is taken up again in the last two chapters of the book. Chapter 17 on "Production, dispersal, and sedimentation of spores/pollen" is especially noteworthy because it is an excellent example of the integrative approach. The initial discussion concentrates on pollen production, dispersal, and sedimentation, based on studies of the modern flora and pollen rain. The applications and implications of these data to the study of lithified sediments are then highlighted. Additional topics, such as data management and post-depositional alteration of palynomorphs (particularly "coalification"), are covered in Chapter 18.

The main text is followed by a lengthy appendix dealing with processing methods. The discussion concentrates on the preparation of material from hard rock samples, but also includes methods for the preparation of modern reference material. This is followed by a thirty-page glossary of terms. Finally, references are compiled for the entire book, rather than for individual chapters.

This book is ambitious in its scope and covers a large amount of material, and thus treatment given to any one topic is necessarily limited. For example, the chapter on Holocene palynology, although touching on some major points, does seem cursory and rather fragmentary. I suspect that specialists in the other time intervals and topics covered in this text might have similar observations. However, the aim of the text is to give a general survey of the field and in this it appears to succeed well.

As an aside, Traverse has some terminological quibbles with the name "Holocene", and would prefer that this interval was subsumed under the Pleistocene. I consider that this term is so well entrenched in the literature that he is on a losing wicket and may be inviting confusion here. In this regard, I was amused to note that Traverse uses the term "climatic optimum". This is a value-laden description (optimum for whom? or what? and where?), that is becoming less frequently used and should be avoided (one of my pet peeves!).

There is a major division in the discipline between Quaternary pollen analysts and stratigraphic or paleopalynologists who tend to concentrate on pre-Pleistocene materials. Our discipline is not alone in this; the divisions between physical and human geography or in geology between Quaternary and hard rock specialists spring readily to mind. Often the two groups do not appear to talk to each other much. So the appearance of this introductory text spanning the discipline is a welcome event.

Although my area of interest is primarily the Late Quaternary, I found this text with its clear expositions, lucid writing style, and abundant illustrations, informative and valuable. I suspect that it is destined to become a standard on palynologists' bookshelves. At about $43 (Canadian) for the paperback version, I imagine that it will not be too expensive for the student readership at which it is primarily aimed.

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