Adult disguises

2 12 2019

Skilled ornithologists can tell the age of a bird by the look of its feathers. But many species are advancing the moult of their first adult plumage in response to global warming, and the youngsters look more similar to the adults now than two centuries ago.

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The clothes don’t make the (wo)man, but how we dress sends out a lot of information about our tastes, emotional state, or financial situation. In nature, where species have evolved to exploit all kinds of physical and chemical cues, visual communication determines a wealth of feeding and reproductive strategies (1).

Birds are familiar to all of us by the beauty and variety of their plumages (see extreme examples commented by David Attenborough here, here and here), which bird fans use to tell juveniles from males, males from females and breeders from migrants. In evolutionary time, birds have gradually moved away from tree-bark browns and tree-leaf greens and, due to functional requirements, modern feathers only span about one third of the colours these animals can perceive (2). They obtain yellows, oranges, and reds from carotenoid-containing food, dark colours from melanin pigment of own synthesis, and the so-called structural colours depend on how light reflects on the barbs of the feathers (2).

Plumage, across its entire range of designs, is a factor crucial to the life history of our feathery friends and, consequently, to evaluate how and how much anthropogenic climate change is impacting them (3).

Plumage and temperature

We know that mammals and birds are modifying their fur and feathers to optimise camouflage against landscapes with more or less snow (4), but less-known are the implications of climate change for feather moulting. Read the rest of this entry »





The politics of environmental destruction

22 10 2019

C_SE 409521698 Paul Ehrlich Lecture Event - Eventbrite2

You’d think I’d get tired of this, wouldn’t you? Alas, the fight does wear me down, but I must persist.

My good friend and colleague, the legendary Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, as well as his equally legendary wife, Anne, will be joining us in Adelaide for a brief visit during their annual southern migration.

Apart from just catching up over a few good bottles of wine (oh, do those two enjoy fine wines!), we have the immense privilege of having Paul appear at two events while he’s in town.

I’m really only going to be talking about the second of the two events (the first is a Science Meets Parliament gig with me and many others at the South Australia Parliament on 12 November): a grand, public lecture and Q&A session held at Flinders University on Wednesday, 13 November.

Haven’t heard of Paul? Where have you been hiding? If by some miracle you haven’t, here’s a brief bio:

Paul Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies Emeritus, President of the Center for Conservation Biology, Department of Biology, Stanford University and Adjunct Professor, University of Technology, Sydney. He does research in population biology (includes ecology, evolutionary biology, behavior, and human ecology and cultural evolution). Ehrlich has carried out field, laboratory and theoretical research on a wide array of problems ranging from the dynamics and genetics of insect populations, studies of the ecological and evolutionary interactions of plants and herbivores, and the behavioral ecology of birds and reef fishes, to experimental studies of the effects of crowding on human beings and studies of cultural evolution, especially the evolution of norms. He is President of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere and is author and coauthor of more than 1100 scientific papers and articles in the popular press and over 40 books. He is best known to his efforts to alert the public to the many intertwined drivers that are pushing humanity toward a collapse of civilization – especially overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich, and lack of economic, racial, and gender equity. Ehrlich is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Entomological Society and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, and a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.  He is a Foreign Member of the Royal Society, an Honorary Member of the British Ecological Society and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society.  Among his many other honours are the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Crafoord Prize in Population Biology and the Conservation of Biological Diversity (an explicit replacement for the Nobel Prize); a MacArthur Prize Fellowship; the Volvo Environment Prize; UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize; the Heinz Award for the Environment; the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement; the Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences; the Blue Planet Prize;  the Eminent Ecologist award of the Ecological Society of America, the Margalef Prize in Ecology and Environmental Sciences, and the BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Ecology and Conservation Biology. Prof Ehrlich has appeared as a guest on more than 1000 TV and radio programs; he also was a correspondent for NBC News. He has given many hundreds of public lectures in the past 50 years.

I hope your jaw just dropped.

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Environmental damage kills children

1 10 2019

Yes, childrenairpollutionit’s a provocative title, I agree. But then again, it’s true.

But I don’t just mean in the most obvious ways. We already have good data showing that lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills children (especially in developing nations), that air pollution is a nasty killer of young children in particular, and now even climate change is starting to take its toll.

These aspects of child health aren’t very controversial, but when we talk about the larger suite of indicators of environmental ‘damage’, such as deforestation rates, species extinctions, and the overall reduction of ecosystem services, the empirical links to human health, and to children in particular, are far rarer.

This is why I’m proud to report the publication today of a paper on which I and team of wonderful collaborators (Sally Otto, Zia Mehrabi, Alicia Annamalay, Sam Heft-Neal, Zach Wagner, and Peter Le Souëf) have worked for several years.

I won’t lie — the path to publishing this paper was long and hard, I think mainly because it traversed so many different disciplines. But we persevered and today published the paper entitled ‘Testing the socioeconomic and environmental determinants of better child-health outcomes in Africa: a cross-sectional study among nations* in the journal BMJ Open.

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Nothing like a good forest

31 07 2019

Our history and culture are intimately tied to the planet’s forests and the services they provide to all living beings. In modern times, forests also help combat the impacts of anthropogenic climate change, not only by acting as powerful sinks of the carbon excess resulting from our greenhouse-gas emissions, but also as thermal shields we and many other species can benefit from.

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Understory of the laurel forest in Garajonay National Park (La Gomera, Canary Islands) – also part of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves since 2012. The fog, combined with the cloud belt blowing from the Atlantic Ocean against the mountains (Garajonay is the highest peak at 1500 m), creates a mesic microclimate crucial for plant endemism. Forest canopies reinforce humidity and buffer temperature variation for many species. Photo: Paco Rodríguez.

If we were to choose a house to live, most would likely opt for one with water and electricity supply, noiseless nights, nearby leisure and shopping, and easy communication by public transport. Lacking only one of those aspects could be off-putting.

In truth, those who have the privilege of living in a stable household value it by the full set of available commodities. Similarly, the value of an ecosystem rests on its entire repertoire of ecological functions (1). And this is particularly so for forest ecosystems.

The ecological value of a forest relies on the collection of its native characteristics (2): how many autochthonous and mature trees it can host, how much photosynthesis it fuels, how many pollinisers it feeds, how much soil and water it creates and retains, and many more (3). Read the rest of this entry »





Increasing human population density drives environmental degradation in Africa

26 06 2019

 

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Almost a decade ago, I (co-) wrote a paper examining the socio-economic correlates of gross, national-scale indices of environmental performance among the world’s nations. It turned out to be rather popular, and has so far garnered over 180 citations and been cited in three major policy documents.

In addition to the more pedestrian ranking itself, we also tested which of three main socio-economic indicators best explained variation in the environmental rank — a country’s gross ‘wealth’ indicator (gross national income) turned out to explain the most, and there was no evidence to support a non-linear relationship between environmental performance and per capita wealth (the so-called environmental Kuznets curve).

Well, that was then, and this is now. Something that always bothered me about that bit of research was that in some respects, it probably unfairly disadvantaged certain countries that were in more recent phases of the ‘development’ pathway, such that environmental damage long since done in major development pulses many decades or even centuries prior to today (e.g., in much of Europe) probably meant that certain countries got a bit of an unfair advantage. In fact, the more recently developed nations probably copped a lower ranking simply because their damage was fresher

While I defend the overall conclusions of that paper, my intentions have always been since then to improve on the approach. That desire finally got the better of me, and so I (some might say unwisely) decided to focus on a particular region of the planet where some of the biggest biodiversity crunches will happen over the next few decades — Africa.

Africa is an important region to re-examine these national-scale relationships for many reasons. The first is that it’s really the only place left on the planet where there’s a semi-intact megafauna assemblage. Yes, the great Late Pleistocene megafauna extinction event did hit Africa too, but compared to all other continents, it got through that period relatively unscathed. So now we (still) have elephants, rhinos, giraffes, hippos, etc. It’s a pretty bloody special place from that perspective alone.

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Elephants in the Kruger National Park, South Africa (photo: CJA Bradshaw)

Then there’s the sheer size of the continent. Unfortunately, most mercator projections of the Earth show a rather quaint continent nuzzled comfortably in the middle of the map, when in reality, it’s a real whopper. If you don’t believe me, go to truesize.com and drag any country of interest over the African continent (it turns out that its can more or less fit all of China, Australia, USA, and India within its greater borders).

Third, most countries in Africa (barring a few rare exceptions), are still in the so-called ‘development’ phase, although some are much farther along the economic road than others. For this reason, an African nation-to-nation comparison is probably a lot fairer than comparing, say, Bolivia to Germany, or Mongolia to Canada.

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Academics and Indigenous groups unite to stand up for the natural world

26 04 2019
rainforest

Rain forest gives way to pastures in the Brazilian Amazon in Mato Grosso. Photo by Thiago Foresti.

More than 600 scientists from every country in the EU and 300 Brazilian Indigenous groups have come together for the first time. This is because we see a window of opportunity in the ongoing trade negotiations between the EU and Brazil. In a Letter published in Science today, we are asking the EU to stand up for Brazilian Indigenous rights and the natural world. Strong action from the EU is particularly important given Brazil’s recent attempts to dismantle environmental legislation and ‘develop the unproductive Amazon’.

It’s worth clarifying — this isn’t about the EU trying to control Brazil — it’s about making sure our imports aren’t driving violence and deforestation. Foreign white people trying to ‘protect nature’ abroad have a dark and shameful past, where actions done in the name of conservation have led to the eviction of millions of Indigenous people. This has predominantly been to create (what we in the world of conservation would call) ‘protected areas’. The harsh reality is that most protected areas either are or have been ancestral lands of Indigenous people who are closely linked to their land and depend on it for their survival. Clearly, conservationists need to support Indigenous people. This new partnership between European scientists and Brazilian Indigenous groups is doing just that.

Brazil

Brazil’s forest loss 2001-2013 shown in red. Indigenous lands outlined. By Mike Clark; data from GlobalForestWatch.org

In Brazil, many Indigenous groups still have a right to their land. This land is predominantly found in the Amazon rainforest, where close to a million Indigenous people live and depend on a healthy forest. Indigenous people are some of the best protectors of this vast forest, and are crucial to a future of long-term successful conservation. But Brazilian Indigenous groups and local communities are increasingly under attack. Violence on deforestation frontiers in Brazil has spiked this month, with at least 9 people found dead. The future is particularly scary for Indigenous people when there are quotes such as this from the man who is currently the President It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.

On top of human rights and environmental concerns, there is a strong profit driven case for halting deforestation. For example, ongoing deforestation in the Amazon risks flipping large parts of the rainforest to savanna – posing a serious risk to agricultural productivity, food security, local livelihoods, and the Brazilian economy. Zero-deforestation doesn’t harm agri-business, it allows for its longevity. Read the rest of this entry »





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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