Surangi Punyasena


Assistant Professor of Plant Biology

Program in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation

139 Morrill Hall
217 244-8049



BA, 1998, Yale University
MS, 2003, The University of Chicago
PhD, 2007, The University of Chicago



IB 106, Extinction: Dinosaurs to Dodos
IB 439, Biogeography




     My research focuses on the role that climate has played in the long-term evolution of Neotropical forests, primarily through the reconstruction of paleoecological and macroevolutionary trends of individual plant clades from the fossil pollen record. Despite its modest standing in the popular imagination, fossil pollen is an ideal source for paleoecological information. The palynological record is one of the most ubiquitous terrestrial fossil records. Pollen and spores are abundant, resist degradation, and are found at the bottom of most water bodies, past or present. For this reason, the palynological record is expressly suited for quantitative analyses of continuous, long-term trends in plant ecology and evolution, including time-series analysis of origination and extinction rates, migration, and functional morphological evolution.


     Paleoecological analyses complement neo-ecological approaches to the study of Neotropical forest composition, diversity, and structure, providing extensive temporal information that is unattainable through other forms of investigation. My approach to understanding the relationship between plant diversity and climate has been multifaceted, investigating both modern spatial and Holocene/Late Quaternary temporal patterns in Neotropical vegetation. Current research includes (1) exploring Quaternary and deep-time (pre-Quaternary) patterns of tropical plant diversity, ecology, and evolutionary change; (2) developing and applying quantitative vegetation models of paleotemperature and paleoprecipitation; and (3) developing quantitative measures of pollen morphology.


     The aim of this interdisciplinary research program is to develop a temporal picture of tropical forest evolution in order to better understand how community composition and functional ecology are affected by climatic change. The results provide a means of testing regional and global climate models, as well as predicting the response of tropical forests to anthropogenic climate forcing.





Punyasena, S. W., F. E. Mayle, and J. C. McElwain. 2008. Quantitative estimates of glacial and Holocene temperature and precipitation change in lowland Amazonian Bolivia. Geology 36(8):667-670.


Punyasena, S. W. 2008. Estimating Neotropical palaeotemperature and palaeoprecipitation using plant family climatic optima. Palaeogeography Palaeoclimatology Palaeoecology 265(3-4):226-237.


Punyasena, S. W., G. Eshel, and J. C. McElwain. 2008. The influence of climate on the spatial patterning of Neotropical plant families. Journal of Biogeography 35(1):117-130.


McElwain, J. C., and S. W. Punyasena. 2007. Mass extinction events and the plant fossil record. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 22(10):548-557