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Prof Jennifer McElwain


Department of Botany
School of Natural Sciences
Dublin 2, Ireland
Phone: +353 1 8962294

Jennifer (Jenny) McElwain holds the 1711 Chair of Botany at Trinity College Dublin’s School of Natural Sciences. She is currently the Head of Botany within the School. Over the past 20 years her research and teaching have focused on the development and use of palaeobotanical methods (proxies) that use fossil plants to reconstruct the evolution of Earth’s atmospheric composition and climate on multimillion year timescales. Her research team use both fossil plants and modern experimentation to investigate how fluctuations in atmospheric composition and climate have influenced plant evolution and ecology throughout Earth history. Her research programme has been successfully funded through both national and international grants and awards including Science Foundation Ireland, Irish Research Council, European Research Council, US National Science Foundation, National Geographic and Marie Curie. She was elected a Member of the Royal Irish Academy in June 2017 and awarded for Excellence in EU research by the President of Ireland in 2012. She has published over 100 internationally peer reviewed publication and two editions of a well-regarded textbook The Evolution of Plants, Oxford University Press. She is a board member of the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice and a member of the Royal Irish Academy Committee on Climate Change and Environmental Science. Before joining TCD in 2017, she was an Associate Professor/Professor at University College Dublin for 11 years, a curator of fossil plants at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago (2000-2006) and post-doctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield, UK (2003-2006). She graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a BA Botany in 1993 and from Royal Holloway University of London with a PhD in 1997.


I am interested in the interactions between plants and climate from the scale of individual stomata on the leaf surface and how they respond to atmospheric carbon dioxide to whole biome level feedbacks between vegetation and climate, particularly forested ecosystems, and how they can ‘force’ climate through the hydrological and carbon cycles. I am interested in how plants are both influenced by and can modulate climate change at different temporal scales from millions of year timescales where I use fossil plants to reconstruct past atmospheric composition and investigate Earth system processes to century and decadal timeframes which are relevant to contemporary global change where I focus on herbarium collections, field expeditions and controlled environment experimentation. I have a particular interest in mass extinction events in the fossil record, the development and application of novel paleo-proxy methods using fossil plants including proxies for atmospheric composition, functional leaf traits and paleoaltimetry. I hope that my research endeavours and that of my research team will ultimately lead to a better understanding of how the Earth’s vegetation will respond to and influence future anthropogenic global change. I welcome enquiries from undergraduate and graduate students and research fellows who are interested in joining my research group to address the challenge of future climate change through the discipline of botany.

Current Research and Research Opportunities

I am currently looking for two postdoctoral researchers to join a European Research Council funded Proof of Concept project called PlantSenseKit. This ERC Proof of Concept (PoC) project aims to develop and commercialize the first plant-based sensor kit for standardization and calibration of controlled environment chambers (CECs) used in plant research, commercial horticulture and the international plant breeding sector bringing down the cost of testing environmental homogeneity within and between CECs.

Selected Publications

Peer reviewed publications – over 100.
See my latest publications on google scholar or  researchgate
McElwain J, Steinthorsdottir M. (2017). Palaeoecology, ploidy, paleoatmospheres and developmental biology: A review of fossil stomata. Plant Physiology doi: 10.1104/pp.17.00204

Yiotis C, Evans-Fitz Gerald C, McElwain JC. (2017). Differences in the photosynthetic plasticity of ferns and Ginkgo grown in experimentally controlled low [O2]:[CO2] atmospheres may explain their contrasting ecological fate across the Triassic–Jurassic mass extinction boundary. Annals of Botany 119:1385-95.

Montañez IP, McElwain JC, Poulsen CJ, White JD, DiMichele WA, Wilson JP, Griggs G, Hren MT (2016). Climate, pCO2 and terrestrial carbon cycle linkages during late Palaeozoic glacial-interglacial cycles. Nature Geoscience 9(11):824-8.

Willis, K.J. and McElwain, J.C. (2013) The Evolution of Plants. Oxford University Press, 2nd Edition: Oxford, 400p.

Barclay, R. S., McElwain, J. C., & Sageman, B. B. (2010). Carbon sequestration activated by a volcanic CO2 pulse during ocean anoxic event 2. Nature Geoscience, 3 (3), 205-208.

Belcher, C. M., Mander, L., Rein, G., Jervis, F. X., Haworth, M., Hesselbo, S. P., McElwain, J. C. (2010). Increased fire activity at the Triassic/Jurassic boundary in Greenland due to climate-driven floral change. Nature Geoscience, 3 (6), 426-429.

McElwain, J. C., Wagner, P. J., & Hesselbo, S. P. (2009). Indicate sudden loss of late Triassic biodiversity in East Greenland. Science, 324 (5934), 1554-1556.

Belcher, C. M., & McElwain, J. C. (2008). Limits for combustion in low O2 redefine paleoatmospheric predictions for the Mesozoic. Science, 321 (5893), 1197-1200.

McElwain, J. C., Wade-Murphy, J., & Hesselbo, S. P. (2005). Changes in carbon dioxide during an oceanic anoxic event linked to intrusion into Gondwana coals. Nature, 435 (7041), 479-482.

McElwain, J. C., Beerling, D. J., & Woodward, F. I. (1999). Fossil plants and global warming at the Triassic-Jurassic boundary. Science, 285 (5432), 1386-1390.



Last updated 4 October 2017