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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Tiny, symbiotic organisms protect corals from predation and disease

20 12 2017

hydrozoan polyp

Hydrozoan polyps living on the surface of a coral (photo credit: S. Montano)

Corals could have some unexpected allies to cope with the multi-faceted threats posed by climate change.

In a new study published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Montano and colleagues show how tiny hydrozoans smaller than 1 mm and commonly found in dense colonies on the surface of hard corals (see above photo) play an important ecological role.

Visually examining ~ 2500 coral colonies in both Maldivian and Saudi Arabian reefs, the scientists searched for signs of predation, temperature-induced stress, and disease. For each colony, they also recorded the presence of symbiotic hydrozoans. They demonstrated that corals living in association with hydrozoans are much less prone to be eaten by corallivorous (i.e., ‘coral-eating’) fish and gastropods than hydrozoan-free corals.

A likely explanation for this pattern could be the deterring action of hydrozoan nematocysts (cells capable of ejecting a venomous organelle, which are the same kinds found in jellyfish tentacles). An individual hydrozoan polyp of less than 1 mm clearly cannot cope with a corallivorous fish that is a billions of times larger, yet hydrozoans can grow at high densities on the surface of corals (sometimes > 50 individuals per cm2). This creates a sort of a continuous, ‘urticating‘ carpet that can discourage fish from foraging. Read the rest of this entry »





Who are the healthiest people in the world?

8 05 2017

healthyApologies for the little gap in my regular posts — I am in the fortunate position of having spent the last three weeks in the beautiful Villa Serbelloni in the village of Bellagio on the shores of Lake Como (northern Italy) engaged in writing a new book with my good friend and colleague, Professor Paul Ehrlich. Both of us received an invitation to become ‘Bellagio Centre Residents‘ by the Rockefeller Foundation to write the book in, shall we say, rather lush circumstances.

While I can’t yet give away all the juicy details of the book itself (we’ve only written about a third of it so far), I wanted to give you a little taste of some of the interesting results we’ve so far put together.

Today’s topic is on human health, which as I’ve written many times before, is in many ways linked to the quality of the environment in which people live. We are currently looking at which countries have the best human health statistics, as well as the best environmental conditions in which to live. Read the rest of this entry »





Buying time

27 06 2016

farmOriginally published in the Otago Daily Times by Tom McKinlay

If we don’t act soon, the world we leave our children will be in a sorry state indeed, leading Australian scientist Prof Corey Bradshaw tells Tom McKinlay.

Prof Corey Bradshaw’s 9-year-old daughter lives what sounds an idyllic existence. On their small farm outside Adelaide in South Australia, she has her chickens and her dogs and her cats, her goats and her sheep.

She’s an only child, but is not short of attention from adults and reads voraciously.

She has big plans; there are at least 25 careers she likes the look of, that she’ll undertake simultaneously: farmer, wildlife rescuer, self-sufficient bush dweller – feeding herself by shooting arrows at fish – scientist and more.

She is optimistic about the future. As she should be. A 9-year-old girl living in Australia in 2016 should regard the sky as no limit at all.

All this I learn from her father, ecologist Prof Bradshaw, who talks of his daughter with an enthusiasm unbounded.

It is fair to assume she has picked up some of her interest in the natural world from him.

He holds the Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Adelaide.

And the ecologist, conservation biologist and systems modeller – with a University of Otago degree – has shared a great deal of his work with his daughter.

“She’s very much a farm kid, but because of who I am she gets to hear a lot about animal and plant systems around the world, and she’s travelled a lot with me and she’s a complete fanatic of David Attenborough,” the professor says.

So far, still so idyllic. But Prof Bradshaw’s work means he is at the forefront of alerting the world to what is not right with it.

Pollution, climate change, habitat loss, extinction.

His daughter has travelled with him to see species that might not be with us by the time she grows up.

“She’s hyper-aware of extinctions, in particular, and how climate change is contributing to that,” Prof Bradshaw says.

“I don’t pull any punches with her.”

In fact, he made her cry when she was 5 explaining climate change. She hasn’t needed to travel to know the pot is on the boil. Fires have forced the family to flee its South Australian property several times, not just at the height of summer.

One of the worst fires in the region struck in May a couple of years back.

“We were on the doorstep of winter and we had one of our worst fires in 20 years.”

So even without a scientist in the family, there are certain unavoidable truths for a child growing up in 21st-century Australia.

Prof Bradshaw is coming to Dunedin next month as part of the New Zealand International Science Festival to talk on climate change, looking at it from his daughter’s perspective. Read the rest of this entry »





Australia’s perfect storm of negligence

17 03 2015

If, for the purposes of some sick and twisted thought experiment, you were to design policies that would ensure the long-term failure of a wealthy, developed nation, you wouldn’t have to look farther than Australia’s current recipe for future disaster. I’m not trying to be provocative, but the warning signs are too bold and flashy to ignore. Let’s just run through some of the main ones:

1. As the lambasted and thoroughly flawed 2015 Intergenerational Report clearly demonstrates, our current government has no idea about the future threats of climate change. Dragged kicking and screaming into only a symbolic recognition of some ‘distant and currently irrelevant problem’, the Abbott-oir and his intergenerational criminals are well known for killing the carbon-pricing scheme, dismantling the Department of Climate Change, pulling out of major international talks on climate-change mitigation and installing a half-arsed, ineffective policy that will do nothing to stem our emissions. Combine that with comments like “coal is good for humanity“, and it’s easy to see how our current leaders have little idea about the future mess they’re creating.

2. Not content just to kick the shit out of any meaningful climate action, our government has also turned its back on any renewable energy target, and facilitated the fossil-fuel barons to dig more coal out of the ground. While South Australia’s Royal Commission on the nuclear fuel cycle is a welcome candle in the climate change-mitigation darkness here, it is far from becoming a national priority any time soon.

3. As has been well documented, the Abbott-oir ship of fools has also done whatever it can to turn back decades of environmental protections in less than six months of taking office. Everything from opening up national parks for exploitation, failing to protect marine sanctuaries, limiting environmental checks to promoting logging in World Heritage Areas, there is little room for hope that our crumbling environmental system will improve at all in the near to long term. Read the rest of this entry »





Psychological toll of being a sustainability scientist

8 12 2014

depressed scientistLike many academics, I’m more or less convinced that I am somewhere on the mild end of the autism spectrum. No, I haven’t been diagnosed and I doubt very much that my slight ‘autistic’ tendencies have altered my social capacity, despite my wife claiming that I have only two emotions – angry or happy. Nor have they engendered any sort of idiot savant mathematical capability.

But I’m reasonably comfortable with mathematics, I can do a single task for hours once it consumes my attention, and I’m excited about discovering how things work. And I love to code. Rather than academics having a higher innate likelihood of being ‘autistic’, I just think the job attracts such personalities.

In the past few years though, my psychological state is probably less dictated by the hard-wiring of my ‘autidemic’ mind and more and more influenced by the constant battery of negative information my brain receives.

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InvaCost – estimating the economic damage of invasive insects

7 11 2014

insectinvasionThis is a blosh (rehash of someone else’s blog post) of Franck Courchamp‘s posts on an exciting new initiative of which I am excited to be a part. Incidentally, Franck’s spending the week here in Adelaide.

Don’t forgot to vote for the project to receive 50 000 € public-communication grant!

Climate change will make winters milder and habitats climatically more suitable year-round for cold-blooded animals like insects, but there are many questions remaining regarding whether such insects will be able to invade other regions as the climate shifts. There are many nasty bugs out there.

For example, the Asian predatory wasp is an invasive hornet in Europe that butchers pollinating insects, especially bees, thereby affecting the production of many wild and cultivated plants. I hope that we all remember what Einstein said about pollinators:

If bees were to disappear, humans will disappear within a few years.

(we all should remember that because it’s one of the few things he said that most of us understood). The highly invasive red fire ant is feared for its impacts on biodiversity, agriculture and cattle breeding, and the thousands of anaphylactic shocks inflicted to people by painful stings every year (with hundreds of deaths). Between the USA and Australia, over US$10 billion is spent yearly on the control of this insect alone. Tiger mosquitoes are vectors of pathogens that cause dengue fever, chikungunya virus and of about 30 other viruses. We could go on.

Most of these nasty creatures are now unable to colonise northern regions of Europe or America, or southern regions of Australia, for example, because they cannot survive cold temperatures. But how will this change? Where, when and which species will invade with rising temperatures? What will be the costs in terms of species loss? In terms of agricultural or forestry loss? In terms of diseases to cattle, domestic animals and humans? What will be the death toll if insects that are vectors of malaria can establish in new, highly populated areas?

We’ve proposed to study these and others from a list of 20 of the worst invasive insect species worldwide, and we got selected (i.e., financed!) by the Fondation BNP Paribas. In addition, the Fondation BNP Paribas has selected five scientific programmes on climate change and will give 50,000 € (that’s US$62,000) to the one selected by the public, for a communication project on their scientific programme. This is why we need you to vote for our project: InvaCost. Read the rest of this entry »