Less snow from climate change pushes evolution of browner birds

7 09 2017
© Bill Doherty

© Bill Doherty

Climate changes exert selective pressures on the reproduction and survival of species. A study of tawny owls from Finland finds that the proportion of two colour morphs varies in response to the gradual decline of snowfall occurring in the boreal region.

Someone born in the tropics who travels to the Antarctic or the Himalaya can, of course, stand the cold (with a little engineering help from clothing, however). The physiology of our body is flexible enough to tolerate temperatures alien to those of our home. We can acclimate and, if we are healthy, we can virtually reside anywhere in the world.

However, modern climate change is steadily altering the thermal conditions of the native habitats of many species. Like us, some can live up to as much heat or cold as their genetic heritage permits, because each species can express a range of morphological, physiological, and behavioural variation (plasticity). Others can modify their genetic make-up, giving way to novel species-specific features or genotypes (evolution).

When genetic changes are speedy, that is, within a few generations, we are witnessing ‘microevolution’ — in contrast to ‘macroevolution’ across geological time scales as originally reported by Darwin and Wallace (1). To date, the detection of microevolution in response to modern climate change remains elusive, and many studies claiming so seem to lack the appropriate data to differentiate microevolution from phenotypic plasticity (i.e., the capacity of a single genotype to exhibit variable phenotypes in different environments) (2, 3). Read the rest of this entry »

Human population growth, refugees & environmental degradation

7 07 2017

refugeesThe global human population is now over 7.5 billion, and increasing by about 90 million each year. This means that we are predicted to exceed 9 billion people by 2050, with no peak in site this century and a world population of up to 12 billion by 2100. These staggering numbers are the result of being within the exponential phase of population growth since last century, such that some 14% of all human beings that have ever lived on the planet are still alive today. That is taking into account about the past 200,000 years, or 10,000 generations.

Of course just like the Earth’s resources, human beings are not distributed equally around the globe, nor are the population trends consistent among regions or nations. In fact, developing nations are contributing to the bulk of the global annual increase (around 89 million per year), whereas developed nations are contributing a growth of only about 1 million each year. Another demonstration of the disparity in human population distributon is that about half of all human beings live in just seven countries (China, India, USA, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Bangladesh), representing just one quarter of the world’s total land area. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s not all about temperature for corals

31 05 2017


Three of the coral species studied by Muir (2): (a) Acropora pichoni: Pohnpei Island, Pacific Ocean — deep-water species/IUCN ‘Near threatened’; (b) Acropora divaricate: Maldives, Indian ocean — mid-water species/IUCN ‘Near threatened’; and (c) Acropora gemmifera: Orpheus Island, Australia — shallow-water species/IUCN ‘Least Concern’. The IUCN states that the 3 species are vulnerable to climate change (acidification, temperature extremes) and demographic booms of the invading predator, the crown-of-thorns starfish Acanthaster planci. Photos courtesy of Paul Muir.

Global warming of the atmosphere and the oceans is modifying the distribution of many plants and animals. However, marine species are bound to face non-thermal barriers that might preclude their dispersal over wide stretches of the sea. Sunlight is one of those invisible obstacles for corals from the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

If we were offered a sumptuous job overseas, our professional success in an unknown place could be limited by factors like cultural or linguistic differences that have nothing to do with our work experience or expertise. If we translate this situation into biodiversity terms, one of the best-documented effects of global warming is the gradual dispersal of species tracking their native temperatures from the tropics to the poles (1). However, as dispersal progresses, many species encounter environmental barriers that are not physical (e.g., a high mountain or a wide river), and whose magnitude could be unrelated to ambient temperatures. Such invisible obstacles can prevent the establishment of pioneer populations away from the source.

Corals are ideal organisms to study this phenomenon because their life cycle is tightly geared to multiple environmental drivers (see ReefBase: Global Information System for Coral Reefs). Indeed, the growth of a coral’s exoskeleton relies on symbiotic zooxanthellae (see video and presentation), a kind of microscopic algae (Dinoflagellata) whose photosynthetic activity is regulated by sea temperature, photoperiod and dissolved calcium in the form of aragonite, among other factors.

Read the rest of this entry »

Higher biodiversity imparts greater disease resistance

12 03 2016

fungal infection

Is biodiversity good for us? In many ways, this is a stupid question because at some point, losing species that we use directly will obviously impact us negatively — think of food crops, pollination and carbon uptake.

But how much can we afford to lose before we notice anything bad is happening? Is the sort of biodiversity erosion we’re seeing today really such a big deal?

One area of research experiencing a surge in popularity is examining how variation in biodiversity (biowealth1) affects the severity of infectious diseases, and it is particularly controversial with respect to the evidence for a direct effect on human pathogens (e.g., see a recent paper here, a critique of it, and a reply).

Controversy surrounding the biodiversity-disease relationship among non-human species is less intense, but there are still arguments about the main mechanisms involved. The amplification hypothesis asserts that a community with more species has a greater pool of potential hosts for pathogens, so pathogens increase as biodiversity increases. On the contrary, the dilution hypothesis asserts that disease prevalence decreases with increasing host species diversity via several possible mechanisms, such as more host species reducing the chance that a given pathogen will ‘encounter’ a suitable host, and that in highly biodiverse communities, an infected individual is less likely to be surrounded by the same species, so the pathogen cannot easily be transmitted to a new host (the so-called transmission interference hypothesis).

So I’ve joined the ecological bandwagon and teamed up yet again with some very clever Chinese collaborators to test these hypotheses in — if I can be so bold to claim — a rather novel and exciting way.

Our new paper was just published online in EcologyWarming and fertilization alter the dilution effect of host diversity on disease severity2. Read the rest of this entry »

Scariest part of climate change isn’t what we know, but what we don’t

7 08 2015

© Nick Kim

My good friend and tropical conservation rockstar, Bill Laurancejust emailed me and asked if I could repost his recent The Conversation article here on ConservationBytes.com.

He said:

It’s going completely viral (26,000 reads so far) in just three days. It’s been republished in The Ecologist, I Fucking Love Science, and several other big media outlets.

Several non-scientists have said it really helped them to understand what’s known versus unknown in climate-change research—which was helpful because they feel pummelled by all the research and draconian stuff that gets reported and have problems parsing out what’s likely versus speculative.

With an introduction like that, you’ll just have to read it!

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”: so goes a Danish proverb attributed variously to baseball coach Yogi Berra and physicist Niels Bohr. Yet some things are so important — such as projecting the future impacts of climate change on the environment — that we obviously must try.

An Australian study published last week predicts that some rainforest plants could see their ranges reduced 95% by 2080. How can we make sense of that given the plethora of climate predictions?

In a 2002 press briefing, Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defence, distinguished among different kinds of uncertainty: things we know, things we know we don’t know, and things we don’t know we don’t know. Though derided at the time for playing word games, Rumsfeld was actually making a good point: it’s vital to be clear about what we’re unclear about.

So here’s my attempt to summarise what we think we know, don’t know, and things that could surprise us about climate change and the environment.

Things we think we know

We know that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen markedly in the last two centuries, especially in recent decades, and the Earth is getting warmer. Furthermore, 2014 was the hottest year ever recorded. That’s consistent with what we’d expect from the greenhouse effect. Read the rest of this entry »

Statistical explainer: average temperature increases can be deceiving

12 05 2015

Beating-the-Heat-Without-PowerOver the years I’ve used a simple graphic from the IPCC 2007 Report to explain to people without a strong background in statistics just why average temperature increases can be deceiving. If you’re not well-versed in probability theory (i.e., most people), it’s perhaps understandable why so few of us appear to be up-in-arms about climate change. I posit that if people had a better appreciation of mathematics, there would be far less inertia in dealing with the problem.

Instead of using the same image, I’ve done up a few basic graphs that explain the concept of why average increases in temperature can be deceiving; in other words, I explain why focussing on the ‘average’ projected increases will not enable you to appreciate the most dangerous aspects of a disrupted climate – the frequency of extreme events. Please forgive me if you find this little explainer too basic – if you have a modicum of probability theory tucked away in your educational past, then this will be of little insight. However, you may wish to use these graphs to explain the problem to others who are less up-to-speed than you.

Let’s take, for example, all the maximum daily temperature data from a single location compiled over the last 100 years. We’ll assume for the moment that there has been no upward trend in the data over this time. If you plot the frequency of these temperatures in, say, 2-degree bins over those 100 years, you might get something like this:


This is simply an illustration, but here the long-term annual average temperature is 25 degrees Celsius, and the standard deviation is 5 degrees. In other words, over those 100 years, the average daily maximum temperature is 25 degrees, but there were a few days when the maximum was < 10 degrees, and a few others where it was > 40 degrees. This could represent a lot of different places in the world.

We can now fit what’s known as a ‘probability density function’ to this histogram to obtain a curve of expected probability of any temperature within that range:


If you’ve got some background in statistics, then you’ll know that this is simply a normal (Gaussian) distribution. With this density function, we can now calculate the probability of any particular day’s maximum temperature being above or below any particular threshold we choose. In the case of the mean (25 degrees), we know that exactly half (p = 0.50) of the days will have a maximum temperature below it, and exactly half above it. In other words, this is simply the area under the density function itself (the total area under the entire curve = 1). Read the rest of this entry »

Why engaging in civil disobedience was my obligation as a scientist, parent and citizen

25 11 2014

prisonerAnother engaging post from Alejandro Frid, Canadian ecologist and modern moral compass. I also recommend that you check out his new book ‘Storms and Stillness: An ecologist’s search for optimism through letters to his young daughter‘. See Alejandro’s previous posts on ConservationBytes.com herehere, hereherehere and here.

Harper’s conservative government is working hard to turn Canada into a Petrostate. Their tactics include blatant inaction on climate change, dismantling environmental legislation, stripping government scientists from their ability to communicate research findings to the tax-paying public, and spying on citizens who, like me, dissent.

Consistent with these tactics, Harper tasked the National Energy Board (NEB) with examining whether building new pipelines that enable increased exploitation of bitumen from the Alberta tar sands is in the best interest of Canadians. Proposed infrastructure under current NEB “scrutiny” include the Trans Mountain pipeline by Houston-based Kinder Morgan, which would increase the capacity to transport tar sands bitumen to an export port in Vancouver, and the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would transport bitumen to the export port of Kitimat. The NEB has approved Northern Gateway and appears to be well on its way to doing the same for Trans Mountain.

The NEB, of course, is a blatant sham, a smokescreen, a club that exists solely to advance the interests of fossil fuel corporations. This assessment is consistent with the conclusion of Marc Eliesen, an industry insider who publically resigned as intervenor in the NEB Trans Mountain hearings, stating in the Globe and Mail that, “To me this is a farce: There is no way you can test the evidence if they won’t answer the basic questions. Unfortunately, this board is not objective. This board is biased.”

While the above quote speaks volumes, for many of us the real clincher is this. The NEB process considers only local impacts—oil spills and the like—while ignoring climate change. This is the equivalent of banning discourse on respiratory disease and asking, “Is it in the best interest of Canadians for the cigarette industry to market their product for toddlers, or would the plastic wrapping of cigarette cartons pose a choking hazard to that age group?” Read the rest of this entry »