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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Communicating climate change

5 06 2018

Both the uncertainty inherent in scientific data, and the honesty of those scientists who report such data to any given audience, can sow doubt about the science of climate change. The perception of this duality is engrained in how the human mind works. We illustrate this through a personal experience connecting with global environmentalism, and synthesise some guidelines to communicate the science of climate disruption by humans.


Courtesy of Toté (

In January 2017, the Spanish environmental magazine Quercus invited us to give a talk, at the Cabinet of Natural History in Madrid, about our article on the effects of climate change on the feeding ecology of polar bears, which made to Quercuscover in February 2017 (1) — see blog post here. During questions and debate with the audience (comprising both scientists and non-scientists), we displayed a graph illustrating combinations of seven sources of energy (coal, water, gas, nuclear, biomass, sun and wind) necessary to meet human society’s global energy needs according to Barry Brook & Corey Bradshaw (2). That paper supports the idea that nuclear energy, and to a lesser extent wind energy, offer the best cost-benefit ratios for the conservation of biodiversity after accounting for factors intimately related to energy production, such as land use, waste and climate change.

While discussing this scientific result, one member of the audience made the blunt statement that it was normal that a couple of Australian researchers supported nuclear energy since Australia hosts the largest uranium reservoirs worldwide (~1/3 of the total). The collective membership of Quercus and the Cabinet of Natural History is not suspicious of lack of awareness of environmental problems, but a different matter is that individuals can of course evaluate a piece of information through his/her own and legitimate perspective.

The stigma of hypocrisy

Indeed, when we humans receive and assimilate a piece of information, our (often not self-conscious) approach can range from focusing on the data being presented to questioning potential hidden agendas by the informer. However, the latter can lead to a psychological trap that has been assessed recently (3) — see simple-language summary of that assessment in The New York Times. In one of five experiments, a total of 451 respondents were asked to rank their opinion about four consecutive vignettes tracking the conversation between two hypothetical individuals (Becky & Amanda) who had a common friend. During this conversation, Amanda states that their friend is pirating music from the Internet, and Becky (who also illegally downloads music) can hypothetically give three alternative answers: Read the rest of this entry »

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.

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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

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 »