Thirsty forests

1 02 2019

Climate change is one ingredient of a cocktail of factors driving the ongoing destruction of pristine forests on Earth. We here highlight the main physiological challenges trees must face to deal with increasing drought and heat.

Forests experiencing embolism after a hot drought. The upper-left pic shows Scots (Pinus sylvestris) and black (P. nigra) pines in Montaña de Salvador (Espuñola, Barcelona, Spain) during a hot Autumn in 2015 favouring a massive infestation by pine processionary caterpillars (Thaumetopoea pityocampa) and tree mortality the following year (Lluís Brotons/CSIC in InForest-CREAF-CTFC). To the right, an individual holm oak (Quercus ilex) bearing necrotic branches in Plasencia (Extremadura, Spain) during extreme climates from 2016 to 2017, impacting more than a third of the local oak forests (Alicia Forner/CSIC). The lower-left pic shows widespread die-off of trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) from ‘Aspen Parkland’ (Saskatchewan, Canada) in 2004 following extreme climates in western North America from 2001 to 2002 (Mike Michaelian/Canadian Forest Service). To the right, several dead aspens near Mancos (Colorado, USA) where the same events hit forests up to one-century old (William Anderegg).

A common scene when we return from a long trip overseas is to find our indoor plants wilting if no one has watered them in our absence. But … what does a thirsty plant experience internally?

Like animals, plants have their own circulatory system and a kind of plant blood known as sap. Unlike the phloem (peripheral tissue underneath the bark of trunks and branches, and made up of arteries layered by live cells that transport sap laden with the products of photosynthesis, along with hormones and minerals — see videos here and here), the xylem is a network of conduits flanked by dead cells that transport water from the roots to the leaves through the core of the trunk of a tree (see animation here). They are like the pipes of a building within which small pressure differences make water move from a collective reservoir to every neighbours’ kitchen tap.

Water relations in tree physiology have been subject to a wealth of research in the last half a decade due to the ongoing die-off of trees in all continents in response to episodes of drought associated with temperature extremes, which are gradually becoming more frequent and lasting longer at a planetary scale (1). 

Embolised trees

During a hot drought, trees must cope with a sequence of two major physiological challenges (2, 3, 4). More heat and less internal water increase sap tension within the xylem and force trees to close their stomata (5). Stomata are small holes scattered over the green parts of a plant through which gas and water exchanges take place. Closing stomata means that a tree is able to reduce water losses by transpiration by two to three orders of magnitude. However, this happens at the expense of halting photosynthesis, because the main photosynthetic substrate, carbon dioxide (CO2), uses the same path as water vapour to enter and leave the tissues of a tree.

If drought and heat persist, sap tension reaches a threshold leading to cavitation or formation of air bubbles (6). Those bubbles block the conduits of the xylem such that a severe cavitation will ultimately cause overall hydraulic failure. Under those conditions, the sap does not flow, many parts of the tree dry out gradually, structural tissues loose turgor and functionality, and their cells end up dying. Thus, the aerial photographs showing a leafy blanket of forest canopies profusely coloured with greys and yellows are in fact capturing a Dantesque situation: trees in photosynthetic arrest suffering from embolism (the plant counterpart of a blood clot leading to brain, heart or pulmonary infarction), which affects the peripheral parts of the trees in the first place (forest dieback).

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Influential conservation ecology papers of 2018

17 12 2018

For the last five years I’ve published a retrospective list of the ‘top’ 20 influential papers of the year as assessed by experts in F1000 Prime — so, I’m doing so again for 2018 (interesting side note: six of the twenty papers highlighted here for 2018 appear in Science magazine). See previous years’ posts here: 2017, 20162015, 2014, and 2013.

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Sex on the beach

2 10 2018
Female green turtles (Chelonia mydas) spawning (top) and diving (bottom) on Raine Island (Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia) — photos courtesy of Ian Bell. This species is ‘Endangered’ globally since 1982, mainly from egg harvesting (poaching conflict in Mexico for olive ridley Lepidochelys olivacea featured by National Geographic’s video here), despite the success of conservation projects (39). Green turtles inhabit tropical and subtropical seas in all oceans. Adults can grow > 150 kg and live for up to ~ 75 years. Right after birth, juveniles venture into the open sea to recruit ultimately in coastal areas until sexual maturity. They then make their first reproductive migration, often over 1000s of km (see footage of a real dive of a camera-equipped green turtle), to reach their native sandy beaches where pregnant females will lay their eggs. Each female can deposit more than one hundred eggs in her nest, and in several clutches in the same season because they can store the sperm from multiple mating events.

When sex is determined by the thermal environment, males or females might predominate under sustained climatic conditions. A study about marine turtles from the Great Barrier Reef illustrates how feminisation of a population can be partitioned geographically when different reproductive colonies are exposed to contrasting temperatures.

Fortunately, most people in Western societies already perceive that we live in a complex blend of sexual identities, far beyond the kind of genitals we are born with. Those identities start to establish themselves in the embryo before the sixth week of pregnancy. In the commonest scenario, for a human foetus XY with one maternal chromosome (X) and one paternal (Y) chromosome, the activation of the Sry gen (unique to Y) will trigger the differentiation of testicles and, via hormonal pathways, the full set of male characteristics (1).

Absence of that gene in an XX embryo will normally lead to a woman. However, in just one of many exceptions to the rule, Sry-expression failure in XY individuals can result in sterile men or ambiguous genitals — along a full gradient of intermediate sexes and, potentially, gender identities. A 2015 Nature ‘News’ feature echoes two extraordinary cases: (i) a father of four children found to bear a womb during an hernia operation, and (ii) a pregnant mother found to host both XX and XY cells during a genetic test – with her clinical geneticist stating “… that’s the kind of science-fiction material for someone who just came in for an amniocentesis” (2). These real-life stories simply reflect that sex determination is a complex phenomenon.

Three ways of doing it

In nature, there are three main strategies of sex determination (3) — see scheme here: Read the rest of this entry »

Some scary stats about agriculture and biodiversity

20 07 2018

84438Last week we had the pleasure of welcoming the eminent sustainability scientist, Professor Andrew Balmford of the University of Cambridge, to our humble Ecology and Evolution Seminar Series here at Flinders University. While we couldn’t record the seminar he gave because of some of the unpublished and non-proprietary nature of some of his slides, I thought it would be interesting, useful, and thought-provoking to summarise some of the information he gave.

Andrew started off by telling us some of the environmental implications of farming worldwide. Today, existing agriculture covers more than half of ‘useable’ land (i.e., excluding unproductive deserts, etc.), and it has doubled nitrogen fixation rates from a pre-industrial baseline. Globally, agriculture is responsible for between 19 and 35% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and it has caused approximately 40% increase in observed sea-level rise (1961-2003). Not surprisingly, agriculture already occupies the regions of highest biodiversity globally, and is subsequently the greatest source of threat to species.

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Biodiversity is everyone’s responsibility

13 07 2018

Workspace: Team Of Diverse Workers Put Hands TogetherI’m not sure if many South Australians are aware of this, but the Parliamentary Inquiry into Biodiversity by the Environment, Resources and Development Committee presented a report to the 53rd Parliament of South Australia in March 2017. I thought it worthwhile reproducing their executive summary here on (I’ve highlighted the text that I deem to be rather insightful and simultaneously damning from our own elected government representatives):

This report summarises the findings and recommendations of the South Australian Parliament’s Environment, Resources and Development Committee’s inquiry into biodiversity in South Australia. Specifically, the inquiry investigated the regulatory and policy framework to determine whether it appropriately supports terrestrial and marine ecological processes, biodiversity values and abates species extinction.

The Committee found that in spite of the efforts of the State and Federal governments, industry and private landholders in South Australia, the condition of biodiversity in the State continues to decline. Species extinctions have occurred in the past and a further “extinction debt” still exists. There is no reason to believe that this trend will improve without a change to the way we approach biodiversity conservation.

A key theme to emerge from the Inquiry is that biodiversity conservation needs to be everyone’s responsibility; State and Federal government, industry, the broader community, and private landholders.

This also means that biodiversity conservation needs to occur across both public and private land, with actions coordinated at a landscape scale.

Making biodiversity conservation everyone’s responsibility requires a range of measures, including legislative reform, improved management of threats and greater involvement of the community. The provision of greater resources would yield faster results.

This report has focused on several key themes that emerged from submissions to the Inquiry.

Regulating for better biodiversity – South Australia’s legislative framework

South Australia’s current legislative framework does not provide for optimum biodiversity outcomes.

Three key issues contribute to this –

  • an out-of-date suite of environmental legislation that lacks cohesion and consistency, particularly regarding enforcement and compliance provisions;
  • inadequate and incomplete processes for identifying and protecting at-risk elements that need special measures (e.g. for protection of specific threatened species and ecological communities); and
  • inadequate consideration of biodiversity conservation in legislation that regulates human activities. In particular, there is a lack of cohesion between the environmental legislative and policy framework and land use planning, assessment and approval.
  • Statutory fragmentation of biodiversity considerations – that is, consideration of different aspects of biodiversity under different pieces of legislation – results in lack of cohesion and consistency, duplication and inefficiency, and makes it difficult to implement a landscape approach or to identify strategic opportunities and risks.

Taken as a whole, current enforcement provisions do not provide for effective and proportionate compliance action. Enforcement and compliance provisions across the relevant legislation are uneven in their approach. For example, penalties appear to be disproportionate and not risk-based (although there are some exceptions). Modern enforcement tools such as compliance orders, civil remedies and alternative penalties (such as administrative penalties, payment of damages including exemplary damages, remediation orders etc) are not included in all relevant legislation. There is some duplication in offences and inconsistency in the types of sanctions and penalty ranges.

There is an urgent need to amend the legislative framework to support any attempt to improve biodiversity outcomes.

The best approach will be based on clear, shared responsibility for biodiversity outcomes, supported by individual accountability. However, such a change will require policy development and drive.

To ensure forward momentum and improvements in the short term while developing the policy settings to support such a step-change, a staged approach could be implemented. There are various ways this could be achieved.

The Committee suggests a 3-stage approach to reforming the legislative framework. The Committee recommends the creation of a Biodiversity Expert Panel that is responsible for advancing this 3-stage approach.

  1. The first stage will involve amendments to improve operation and effectiveness of the regulatory regime within current policy settings, acknowledging that as a result of Stage 3, provisions may be altered or moved into different pieces of legislation. Amendments generally would be to the existing ‘environmental’ Acts, and primarily to the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 and Native Vegetation Act 1991. They would include many of the specific areas for amendment identified in EDO submissions (2011 & 2015) as well as in the SA Government submission, for example, beginning with amendments to improve current environmental legislation.
  2. Stage 2 would progress to amendments to improve integration between Acts and improve support for landholders and community participation.
  3. Stage 3 would implement a system whereby all resource use and management would be managed by one piece of legislation, with protection of biodiversity and sustainable development at its core. Provisions for protected area management, and for the scientific work involved in identifying threatened species and communities, may be contained in separate legislation.

Threats, ecological resilience and restoration

The State’s native biodiversity is facing myriad of current threats, including habitat loss and fragmentation (due to development and changing land-use), pest plants and animals, and control burn regimes. There is a need for more stringent vegetation protection, better informed and enacted control and management strategies of known pest plants and animals, and a revision of burning regimes.

Future threats to the State’s biodiversity will be largely driven by climate change impacts and the interaction with existing major threats (e.g. urbanisation and changing land use). Adequately preparing for and managing such future threats will require knowledge of projected changes and pro-active preparation for such changes.

Working with the community

Involvement of the community is an essential part of any biodiversity conservation strategy for the State. It is a foundation stone for moving to a point where biodiversity conservation is everyone’s business.

Community engagement will become increasingly important for biodiversity conservation, especially given the growing role of volunteers to support works on public land as well as the voluntary conservation efforts of private landholders. The expanding role of volunteers reenforces that biodiversity conservation is everyone’s business.

South Australia’s approach to biodiversity conversation on private land needs to be reinvigorated.

Cross cutting themes

There were several cross cutting themes identified in submissions to the Inquiry. There was broad recognition of the strong cultural and historic significance of elements of biodiversity to Aboriginal people, and that this is often poorly understood outside those communities. Continuing to identify ways for Aboriginal people to contribute to land and water management in South Australia remains a priority.

With respect to knowledge generation, critical knowledge gaps exist that need to be filled and existing knowledge is not being adequately understood, communicated or applied. From a resourcing perspective, there is concern that insufficient funds are being allocated to biodiversity conservation, which is affecting work on public and private lands.

The management of over-abundant species in South Australia remains a challenge, noting the recent impacts of long-nose fur seals in the Lower Lakes and Coorong, and ongoing concerns regarding the impact of animals such as little corellas and some species of kangaroos on negative vegetation.


A life of fragmentation

9 05 2018

LauranceWhat do you say to a man whose list of conservation awards reads like a Star Wars film intro, who has introduced terms like the ‘hyperdynamism hypothesis’ to the field of ecology, and whose organisation reaches over one million people each week with updates of the scientific kind?

Interview with Bill Laurance by Joel Howland (originally published in Conjour)

Well, I started by asking what it is that leads him to love the natural world to the extent he does. His answer was disarmingly simple.

“I grew up in the country, on an Oregon cattle ranch, and I think my love of nature just evolved naturally from that. When I was a young kid my dad and I did some fishing and ‘rock-hounding’— searching for rare stones and fossils. As an adolescent and teen I loved heading off into a forest or wilderness, rifle in hand – back in those days you could do that – to see whatever I could find. I watched red foxes hunting, eagles mating, and even heard a mountain lion scream. I got to be a pretty good duck and game-bird hunter.”

He’s quick to point out, however, he realised his taste for guns was not so developed as his love of nature.

“I gave up my rifles for a camera, and enjoyed that even more. I really got into photography for a while. Nature has always just calmed and fascinated me —I guess that’s partly why I became a conservationist.”

Who is Bill Laurance?

William F. Laurance is one of the leading ecology and conservation scientists globally, publishing dozens of papers in journals like Nature and Science, and rewriting the way scientists in the field research the complex interactions between flora and fauna — particularly in rainforests like the Amazon.

He is a Distinguished Research Professor at James Cook University in Australia, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has received an Australian Laureate Fellowship from the Australian Research Council.

All this for a man from western USA who dreamed of running a zoo. Instead, he has travelled a path of intricate and game-changing research, trailblazing awareness campaigns and inspirational writings that have driven the way many see the environment over the past few decades.

Despite this profile, Laurance gave some time to tell Conjour about his life, his passion and his aims. I asked him what — considering his impressive CV — the future holds.

His response seems a real insight to the man. Read the rest of this entry »

Influential conservation ecology papers of 2017

27 12 2017

Gannet Shallow Diving 03
As I have done for the last four years (20162015, 2014, 2013), here’s another retrospective list of the top 20 influential conservation papers of 2017 as assessed by experts in F1000 Prime.

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