Skip to content

Toggle service links

You are here

  1. Home
  2. Professor Robert Andrew Spicer

Professor Robert Andrew Spicer

Image of Prof Bob Spicer

Profile summary

  • Visiting Informal Academic
  • Emeritus Professor
  • Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
  • School of Environment, Earth & Ecosystem Sciences
  • r.a.spicer

Professional biography

I am an Emeritus Professor of Earth Sciences in the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences and a Visiting Professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Yunnan, China ( Trained initially as a botanist at Imperial College London I subsequently obtained a PhD in Geology, also at Imperial College. That was followed by a three year period working with the United States Geological Survey at Menlo Park California first as a Lindemann Fellow and then as a Research Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences. On my return to the UK my first lecturing position was in the Life Sciences department of Goldsmiths College, London, followed by a move to Oxford University where I was a lecturer in Earth Sciences and a Fellow of St Hugh's College. I joined the Open University as Professor and Head of Earth Sciences in 1994 and subsequently became the founding director of CEPSAR (Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research), before university-wide restructuring led to the creation of the school structure including my current unit, the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences.

I was recently awarded the T.M. Harris medal for my 'lifetime achievement' in palaeobotany.


Research interests


Palaeobotany and Palaeoclimatology

I have ongoing interests in using plant fossils as indicators of past climates with particular emphasis on polar environments at times of global warmth (, the uplift of the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau and the development of the Asian monsoon systems. I have an active research program in collaboration with staff at the Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, for the development of the quantitative plant-based palaeoclimate proxy known as CLAMP (Climate Leaf Analysis Multivariate Program)

I use plant fossil proxy climate data in relation to global climate modelling for past and present climates including the essessment of uncertainties in both modelling and proxies. 

Fundamental to understanding uncertainty in the proxies is determining the processes by which the plant fossil accumulations form (plant taphonomy) and how the these processes may affect the climate signal.

Plants are excellent climate indicators as we can readily see from the world around us. Plants in deserts have few, if any, leaves and those that they do have tend to be small. Rainforest trees and plants on the other hand can have very large leaves and often large numbers of them. These architectural features of plants are similar in similar climates so that rainforests, for example, in Africa, South East Asia and South America look alike even though they contain quite different species. This convergence of form is expressed in the architecture of the whole plant, but also strongly in the form of the leaves.

Leaves are readily fossilised so the geological record contains a vast amount of information about past climates. Qualitative surveys of rocks and fossils show that the average temperature of the Earth has fluctuated through time, but that for about 80% of the time that animals and plants have lived on land the world has been warmer than it is now. Using plant fossils we can quantify a range of parameters such as temperature and rainfall for those past climates. Climate Leaf Analysis Multivariate Program - CLAMP - is a powerful tool for decoding the signal of ancient climate encoded in leaf form. To learn more about CLAMP follow the this link

The development of CLAMP is the focus of one of my current research projects being carried out at the Key Laboratory of Tropical Forest Ecology, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Yunnan, P.R. China and the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences, Lucknow, India. Another project uses CLAMP to track the uplift of the Himalaya and Tibet, as well as climate changes and biodiversity development associated with the evolution of the Asian monsoon systems.

Recent Research Outputs:

162. Paul J Valdes, Ding Lin, Alex Farnsworth, Robert A. Spicer, Shi-Hu Li, Su Tao. 2019. Comment on “Revised paleoaltimetry data show low Tibetan Plateau elevation during the Eocene” Technical Comment: 10.1126/science.aax8474. Science.

161. Zhou, Z.-K., Su, T. Spicer, R.A., 2019 Understanding the Evolution of Biodiversity in Asia. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology (Editorial).

160. Spicer, R.A., Valdes, P.J., Hughes, A.C., Yang, J., Spicer, T.E.V., Herman, A.B., Farnsworth, A. 2019. New insights into the thermal regime and hydrodynamics of the early Late Cretaceous Arctic. Geological magazine.

159. Murray, M., Soh, W.K., Yiotis, C. Batke, S., Parnell, A., Spicer, R., Lawson, T., Caballero, R., Wright, I., Purcell, C. McElwain, J. 2019. Convergence in Maximum Stomatal Conductance of C3 Woody Angiosperms in Natural Ecosystems Across Bioclimatic Zones. Frontiers in Plant Science. 10: Article 558. May 7 2019.

158, Tang, He; Liu, Jia; Wu, Feixiang; Magner, T.E.V.; Spicer, R.A.; Deng, Wei-Yu-Dong; Xu, Congli; Zhao, Fan; Huang, Jian; Li, Shu-Feng; Su, Tao; Zhou, Zhekun 2019. An extinct genus Lagokarpos reveals a biogeographic connection of the Tibet with other regions in the Northern Hemisphere during the Paleogene. Journal of Systematics and Evolution.

157. Jia Liu, Tao Su, Robert A. Spicer, He Tang, Wei-Yu-Dong Deng, Fei-Xiang Wu, Gaurav Srivastava, Teresa Spicer, Truong Van Do, Tao Deng, Zhe-Kun Zhou, 2019. Biotic Interchange through lowlands of Tibetan Plateau suture zones during Paleogene. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 524:33-40.

156. Su, T., Farnsworth, A., Spicer, R.A., Huang, J., Wu, F.-X. Liu, J.  Li, S.-F., Xing, Y.-W. Huang, Y.-J. Deng, W.-Y.-D. Tang, H. Xu, C.-L. Zhao, F. Srivastava, G., Valdes, P. J., Deng, T. Zhou, Z.-K., 2019. No high Tibetan Plateau until the Neogene. Science Advances. 5:eaav2189.

155. Maslova, N.P., Karasev, E.V., Kodrul, T.M., Spicer, R.A.,Volkova, L.D., Spicer, T.E.V., Jin, J.-H., Liu, X.-Y. Sun and shade leaf variability in Liquidambar chinensisChampion and Liquidambar formosanaHanse (Altingiaceae): implications for paleobotany. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.188:296–315.

154. Khan, M.A. Bera, M., Spicer, R.A.,Spicer, T.E.V., Bera, S., 2019. Palaeoclimatic estimates for the late Cenozoic (Mio-Pliocene) Siwalik Flora of Bhutan: Evidence for the development of the South Asian Monsoon in the eastern Himalaya. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 514: 326–335.

153. Khan, M.A. Bera, M., Spicer, R.A.,Spicer, T.E.V., Bera, S, 2018.Floral diversity and environment during the middle Siwalik sedimentation (Pliocene) in the Arunachal sub-Himalaya. Palaeobiodiversity and Palaeoenvironments.

152. Khan, M.A. Bera, M., Spicer, R.A.,Spicer, T.E.V., Bera, S. 2018. Evidence of simultaneous occurrence of tylosis formation and fungal interaction in a late Cenozoic angiosperm from the eastern Himalaya. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology. 259, 171-184.

151. Su, T., Spicer, R.A., Li, S-H., Xu, H., Huang, J., Sherlock, S., Huang, Y-J., Li, S-F., Wang, L., Jia, L-B., Deng, W-Y-D., Deng, C-L. Zhang, S-T, Valdes, P.J., Zhou, Z-K., 2018.  Uplift, Climate and Biotic Changes at the Eocene-Oligocene Transition in Southeast Tibet, National Science Review.

150. Spicer, R.A. Phytopalaeoaltimetry: using plant fossils to measure past land surface elevation. In: Mountains Climate and Biodiversity, Editors Hoorn, C., Perrigo, A.L. and Antonelli, A.. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN: 978-1-119-15987-2.

149. Spicer, R.A., 2017. Tibet, the Himalaya, Asian Monsoons and Biodiversity - In what ways are they related? Plant Diversity.

148. Kahn, M.A., Bera, M., Spicer, R.A., Spicer, T.E.V., Bera, S., 2017. First occurrence of mastixioid (Cornaceae) fossil in India and its biogeographic implications. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology. Available Online

147. Spicer, R.A., Yang, J., Herman, A., Kodrul, T., Aleksandrova, G., Maslova, N., Spicer, T. E. V., Ding. L., Xu, Q., Shukla, A., Srivastava, G., Mehrotra, R.C., Jin, J.-H., 2017. Paleogene Monsoons across India and South China: Drivers of Biotic Change. Gondwana Research 49: 350–363.

146. Herman, A., Spicer, R.A., Aleksandrova, G.N., Yang, J., Kodrul, T., Maslova, N.P., Spicer, T.E.V., Chen, G., Jin J.-H., 2017. Eocene – Early Oligocene climate and vegetation change in southern China: evidence from the Maoming Basin. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 479: 126–137.

145. Khan, M.A., Spicer, R.A., Spicer, T.E.V., Bera, S., 2017. Evidence for diversification of Calophyllum L. (Calophyllaceae) in the Neogene Siwalik forests of eastern Himalaya. Plant Systematics and Evolution

144. Ding, L., Spicer, R.A., Yang, J., Xu, Q., Cai, F., Li, S., Lai, Q., Wang, H., Spicer, T.E.V., Yue, Y., Shukla, A., Srivastava, G., Khan, M.A., Bera, S., Mehrotra, R.C., 2017. Quantifying the rise of the Himalaya orogen and implications for the South Asian monsoon. Geology 45: 215–218.

143. Spicer, R.A., Yang, J., Herman, A.B., Kodrul, T., Maslova, N., Spicer, T.E.V., Aleksandrova, Jin, J., 2016. Asian Eocene Monsoons as revealed by leaf architectural signatures. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 449: 61-68.

142. Li, S.–F., Jacques, F.M.B., Spicer, R.A., Su, T., Spicer, T.E.V., Yang, J., Zhou, Z. 2016. Artificial neural networks reveal a high-resolution climatic signal in leaf physiognomy. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 442: 1-11.

141. Herman, A.B., Spicer, R.A., Spicer, T.E.V., 2016. Environmental constraints on terrestrial vertebrate behaviour and reproduction in the high Arctic of the Late Cretaceous.  Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 441:317–338.

140. Sun, B., Wang, Y.-F.,Li, C.S., Yang, J.,Li, J-F., Li, Y.-L., Deng, T., Wang, S.-Q., Zhao, M., Spicer, R.A., Ferguson, D.K., Mehrotra, R.C. 2015. Early Miocene elevation in northern Tibet estimated by palaeobotanical evidence. Nature Scientific Reports 5:10379 DOI: 10. 1038/srep10379.

139. Li, S.–Y., Mao, L.–M., Spicer, R.A., Lebreton-Anberré, J., Su, T., Sun, M., Zhou, Z.–K. 2015. Late Miocene vegetation dynamics under monsoonal climate in southwestern China. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 425:14-40.

138. Yang J., Spicer R.A., Spicer T.E.V., Arens N.C., Jacques F.M.B., Su T., Kennedy E.M., Herman A.B., Steart D.C., Srivastava G., Mehrotra R.C., Valdes P.J., Mehrotra N.C., Zhou Z.K., Lai J.S., 2015. Leaf Form-Climate Relationships on the Global Stage: An Ensemble of Characters. Global Ecology and Biogeography 10:1113- 1125.

137. Spicer, R.A., Herman, A.b., Liao, W., Spicer, T.E.V., Kodrul, T.M., Yang, J., Jin, J. 2014. Cool tropics in the Middle Eocene: Evidence from the Changchang Flora, Hainan Island, China. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 412 (2014) 1–16

136. Shukla, A., Mehrotra, R.C., Spicer, R.A., Spicer, T.E.V., Kumar, M. 2014. Cool equatorial terrestrial temperatures and the South Asian monsoon in the Early Eocene: Evidence from the Gurha Mine, Rajasthan, India. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 412:187–198.

135. Utescher, T., Bruch, A.A., Erdei, B., François, L., Ivanov, D., Jacques, F.M.B., Kern, A.K., Liu, Y.-S.(C.), Mosbrugger, V., Spicer, R.A. 2014. The Coexistence Approach—Theoretical background and practical considerations of using plant fossils for climate quantification.  Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 410:58–73

134. Spicer, R.A., Herman, A.B., Yang, J., Spicer, T.E.V. 2014. Why future climate change is likely to be underestimated: evidence from palaeobotany. J. Bot. Soc. Bengal 67:75–88.

133. Khan, M., Spicer, R.A., Bera, S., Ghosh, R., Yang, J., Spicer, T.E.V., Guo, S., Su, T., Jacques, F., Grote, P.J., 2014. Miocene to Pleistocene floras and climate of the Eastern Himalayan Siwaliks, and New Palaeoelevation estimates for the Namling-Oiyug Basin, Tibet. Global and Planetary Change 113:1–10.

132. Khan, M.A., Spicer, R.A., Spicer, T.E.V., Bera, S. 2014. Fossil evidence of insect folivory in the eastern Himalayan Neogene Siwalik forests. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 410:264–277.

131. Spicer, R.A., Collinson, M.E., 2014. Plants and floral change at the K–Pg boundary: three decades on. Geol. Soc. Am. Spec. Pap. 505:117–132.

130. Jacques, F.M.B., Su, T., Spicer, R.A., Xing, Y.-W., Huang, Y.-J., Zhou, Z. 2014. Late Miocene southwestern Chinese floristic diversity shaped by the southeastern uplift of the Tibetan Plateau. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 411:208–215.

129. Kennedy, E.M., Arens, N.C., Reichgelt, T., Spicer, R.A., Spicer, T.E.V., Stranks, L., Yang, J. 2014. Deriving temperature estimates from Southern Hemisphere leaves. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 412:80–90.

128. Khan, M.A., Spicer, T.E.V., Spicer, R.A., Bera, S. 2014. Occurrence of Gynocardia odorata Robert Brown (Achariaceae, formerly Flacourtiaceae) from the Plio-Pleistocene sediments of Arunachal Pradesh, northeast India and its palaeoclimatic and phytogeographic significance. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, 211:1-9.

127. Srivastava, G., Spicer, R.A., Spicer, T.E.V., Yang, J., Kumar, M., Mehrotra, R., Mehrotra, N. 2012. Megaflora and palaeoclimate of a Late Oligocene tropical delta, Makum Coalfield, Assam: Evidence for the early development of the South Asian Monsoon. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 342-343, 130-142. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2012.05.002

126. Kumar, M., Srivastava, G., Spicer, R.A., Spicer, T.E.V., Mehrotra R.C., Mehrotra N.C. 2012. Sedimentology, palynostratigraphy, and palynofacies of the Late Oligocene Makum Coalfield, Assam, India: a window on lowland tropical vegetation during the most recent episode of significant global warmth. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 342- 343, 143-162. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2012.05.001

125. Hofmann, C-C., Spicer, R.A., Ahlberg, A., Herman, A.B. 2011. Scanning electron microscopy investigation of monads and tetrads of basal core eudicots from the Upper Cretaceous Vilui Basin, Siberia: Evidence for reticulate evolution. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 167, 196-211. DOI 10.1016/j.revpalbo.2011.08.007

124. Yang, J., Spicer, R.A., Spicer, T.E.V., Li, C-S., 2011. ‘CLAMP Online’: a new web-based palaeoclimate tool and its application to the terrestrial Paleogene and Neogene of North America. Palaeobiodiversity and palaeoenvironments 91, 163-183. DOI 10.1007/s12549-011-0056-2

123. Daly, R.J., Jolley, D.W., Spicer, R.A., and Ahlberg, A., 2011, A palynological study of an extinct Arctic ecosystem from thePaleocene of northern Alaska. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, v. 166, p. 107-116. 

122. Daly, R.J., Jolley, D.W., Spicer, R.A., 2011. The role of angiosperms in Palaeocene arctic ecosystems: A palynological study from the Alaskan North Slope. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 309, 374-382. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2011.07.007

121. Jacques, F.M.B., Tao, S., Spicer, R.A., Xing, Y., Huang, Y., Wang, W., Zhou, Z., 2011. Leaf physiognomy and climate: are monsoon systems different? Global and Planetary Change 76 (1-2), 56–62. doi:10.1016/j.gloplacha.2010.11.009

120. Spicer, R.A., Bera, S., De Bera, S., Spicer, T.E.V., Srivastava, S., Mehrotra, R., Mehrotra, N., Yang, J., 2011. Why do foliar physiognomic climate estimates sometimes differ from those observed? Insights from taphonomic information loss and a CLAMP case study from the Ganges Delta. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 302, 381-395. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2011.01.024

119. Teodorides, V., Mazouch, P., Spicer, R.A., Uhl, D., 2011. Refining CLAMP — Investigations towards improving the Climate Leaf Analysis Multivariate Program Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 299, 39-48. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2010.10.031.

118. Spicer R.A. and Yang, J., 2010. Quantification of Uncertainties in Fossil Leaf Paleoaltimetry - Does Leaf Size Matter? Tectonics, 29, TC6001, doi:10.1029/2010TC002741.

117. Steart, D.C., Spicer, R.A., Bamford, M.K., 2010. Is southern Africa different? An investigation of the relationship between leaf physiognomy and climate in southern African mesic vegetation. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 162, 607–620. doi:10.1016/j.revpalbo.2010.08.002.

116. Song, X-Y., Spicer R.A., Yang, J., Yao, Y-F and Li, C.S., 2010. Pollen evidence for an Eocene to Miocene elevation of centralsouthern Tibet predating the rise of the High Himalaya. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatolgy, Palaeoecology. 297: 159-168.

115. Spicer, R.A. and Herman, A.B. 2010. The Late Cretaceous Environment of the Arctic: A quantitative reassessment using plant fossils. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatolgy, Palaeoecology. 295: 423-442.

114. Velasco -de Leon, M.P., Spicer, R.A., and Steart, D.C., 2010. Climatic reconstruction of two Pliocene floras from Mexico. Palaeobiodiversity and Palaeoenvionments. 90: 99-110.

113. Herman, A.B., and Spicer, R.A., 2010. Mid-Cretaceous floras and climate of the Russian high Arctic (Novosibirsk Islands, Northern Yakutia). Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatolgy, Palaeoecology, 295: 409-422.

112. Moiseeva, M.G., Herman, A.B., and Spicer, R.A., 2009. Late Paleocene Flora of the Northern Alaska peninsula: The Role of Transberingian Plant Migrations and Climate Change. Palaeontological Journal, 43: 1298-1308.

111. Spicer, R.A., Valdes, P.J., Spicer, T.E.V., Craggs, H.J., Srivastava, G., Mehrotra, R.C., Yang, J., 2009. New developments in CLAMP: calibration using global gridded meteorological data. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatolgy, Palaeoecology, 283: 91- 98.

110. Spicer, R.A., Daly, R.J., Jolley, D.W., Herman, A,.B., Ahlberg, A., Moiseeva, N., 2009 Climate and Vegetation of the Selandian-Thanetian Paleocene Sagwon Section, Northern Alaska (Palaeolatitude 85°N).In Crouch, E.M., Strong, C.P., Hollis, C.J., (editors) 2009. Climatic and Biotic Events of the Paleogene (CBEP 2009), extended abstracts from an international conference in Wellington, New Zealand, 12-15 January 2009. GNS Science Miscellaneous Series 18, 131- 134.


Teaching interests


Past Contributions to OU Teaching

Course team member S279.

Course team member SXR260.

Tutor SXR 208 Astronomy (Observing the Universe).

Senior Tutor SXR369 Weeks for students with additional requirements.

Author of S199 (Weather and Climate Modelling).

Course Team Chair Course Team Member and author S369 (The Geological Record of Environmental Change).

Course Team, Tutor and Exam Board Member SXR 369 (The Geological Record of Environmental Change Residential School).

Chair of S269 (Earth and Life) Course Team and Exam Board.

More recently I have been contributing to Masters and PhD programmes at Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China and Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Impact and engagement

I have been an academic consultant for numerous television programmes and made several TV and radio appearances. An example is NOVA's 'Arctic Dinosaurs'. 

External collaborations

I am collaborating with Bristol University, UK, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Yunnan, China and The Institute of Tibetan Plateau research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China, all being funded as part of the NERC/NSFC Biosphere Evolution, Transitions & Resilience (BETR) Research Programme. Our project is called 'The evolution of vegetation and biodiversity change during the Palaeogene and early Neogene', but is better known under the acronym "UMBRELLA" (Understanding Monsoons and Biodiversity Relevant to Landscapes and Livelihoods in Asia).

I have numerous international collaborations involving colleagues in Russia, China, New Zealand, and India.

Meet our Academics

Head and shoulders of male OU academic

In addition to teaching on Open University modules our academics are engaged in ground breaking research that benefits individuals and society.

Request your prospectus

Request a prospectus icon

Explore our qualifications and courses by requesting one of our prospectuses today.

Request prospectus

Are you already an OU student?

Go to StudentHome