Tag Archives: biodiversity

Putting a Price on Nature

Title Image Credit: Baz2121, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped

How do we motivate people to protect ecosystems?

At this stage in the climate crisis, many of us are very aware that ecosystem destruction and biodiversity loss are huge problems, bringing about everything from rapidly expanding deserts to global pandemics. We are acutely conscious that something incredibly valuable is being destroyed, and we want to protect it.

However, there are also people who aren’t very aware of the scale of ecosystem destruction, and therefore don’t seem to be doing anything about it. Motivating these people to protect ecosystems – or at least stop destroying them – is a huge problem. A problem so big, some people have even tried to throw money at it.

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We’re In The Sixth Mass Extinction Event

Image Credit: Bernard Dupont, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped

The urgency behind the most recent IPCC report has thankfully garnered it a lot of attention worldwide*. It’s a report that was very frank in its desperation for people to take this threat as seriously as possible. Yet both this report and the one that hit us in February also made mention of one other key factor that has been swept under the rug – the ability of functioning ecosystems to both mediate and mitigate the impact of climate change.

Alongside a wealth of other benefits we gain from biodiversity, ecosystems play vital roles in helping us withstand the rigours of climate change. Wetlands and rivers protect us from increased flooding. Forests help mitigate extreme heat waves. Peatlands, mires, and permafrost are all crucial carbon sinks. Yet as species disappear, these ecosystems deteriorate, as pieces of the complicated web that they’re made up of disappear. It’s why the concept of mass extinction is so frightening.

But what is mass extinction? We often hear about the concept of a mass extinction, and the question of whether we’re currently in the sixth mass extinction is constantly thrown around. So let’s have a quick look at exactly what extinction itself means, what a mass extinction is, and why it’s increasingly obvious that we’re in one.

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Why Are There So Many Species?

The causes and ecological context of rapid morphological evolution in birds (2022) Crouch & Tobias, Ecology Letters, https://doi.org/10.1111/ele.13962

Image credit: Andrej Chudý , CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Crux

One of the biggest questions facing evolutionary ecologists is why some groups of organisms contain SO MANY species, while others are relatively sparse in comparison. We’ve discussed adaptive radiations on Ecology for the Masses before, which is when a burst of speciation occurs within a group, with new species adapting to fill new ecological niches. It could be that the reason for such uneven groups is that some clades, or related groups of organisms, are more prone to such adaptive radiations than others. If this is true, it would mean that such clades experience not only an increase in the number of lineages (species) that they contain, but also the number of traits they exhibit.

Increases in the speciation rate and trait evolution are the hallmarks of adaptive radiations, but they may not occur at the same time, which can lead to some different outcomes. Clades may diversify rapidly, without really evolving new traits, and this is known as a “non-adaptive radiation“. In contrast, a lineage may quickly evolve new traits without speciating, which is known as an “adaptive non-radiation“. To understand the causes and context of such evolutionary scenarios, today’s authors studied the history of bird evolution.

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Getting The Most Out Of A Jigsaw Ecosystem

Image Credit: Mainaksinghabarma, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped

Increasing cover of natural areas at smaller scales can improve the provision of biodiversity and ecosystem services in agroecological mosaic landscapes (2022) Rosenfield et al., Journal of Environmental Management, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2021.114248

The Crux

While nature documentaries insist on portraying the natural world as entirely separate from human life, the fact is that ‘natural’ areas exist side by side with, and often within a mosaic of, human and semi-human (think agricultural or grazed) ecosystems. These natural ecosystems provide a wide array of services – they hold biodiversity, suck carbon in from the atmosphere, maintain clean water, and even regulate local temperatures.

With a growing global population, maintaining these ecosystems unfortunately isn’t as simple as leaving the natural world alone. Development needs to be planned with these ecosystems in mind, and choosing exactly where to leave them intact is tricky. Scale is a big problem here – does leaving one big patch of forest untouched give the same benefits as leaving many smaller patches dotted throughout a landscape? That’s what today’s researchers were trying to answer.

What They Did

Today’s researchers studied a large region in south-west Ontario, Canada. The region contained a number of different ecosystems, which they broke into natural, agricultural, and urban areas. They selected regions across the different areas to test for different indicators of ecosystem services:

  • Biodiversity – in this case the abundance and species richness of different plant species
  • Carbon storage – in this case measured by the mass of trees above ground throughout the regions
  • Local climate regulation – the ability of an ecosystem to regulate local temperatures
  • Water quality – checking the concentration of different minerals in local water sources

They then compared these to the percentage of these regions which were covered by natural, agricultural, or urban areas.

Did You Know: Cultural Landscapes

Large agricultural clearance often creates fragmented landscapes and damages population which depends on large, connected landscapes. Yet at a small scale, very localised grazing often create small patches that break up the usual landscape and can sometimes increase species richness on a larger scale. It’s a phenomenon that has often led the idea of ‘cultural landscapes’ being deemed necessary for a healthy landscape. Yet often these landscapes are a fairly recent phenomenon, and not really representative of the ‘natural state’ of an ecosystem. Furthermore, they may increase species richness on a small scale, but if they expand too much those effects start to be outweighed by their fragmenting effects.

What They Found

The most notable patterns came with an increase in natural land cover. Where there were higher proportion of natural land, biodiversity increased and local temperature decreased at all spatial scales. Aboveground carbon and water quality also increased with increasing natural land, though only at smaller scales.

Increasing urban land area led to lower biodiversity and higher temperatures across all scales, while the only pronounced effect an increase in agricultural land had was to decrease local temperatures.

Problems

Obviously a high level of plant species richness does not necessarily translate to high species richness of other organisms like fungi and animals. Species richness itself can be misleading, as high abundances of one particular species and small abundances of others will give the same value as a more even spread across the region. However, a more intensive survey would have increased the workload tenfold, and I understand why the authors went for plant diversity, which generally can be a good indicator for more comprehensive estimates.

So What

While there are many who argue for the positive influence of agricultural areas on the environment, this study suggests that natural ecosystems are by far the most important contributors to important ecosystem services. The fact that this was even more pronounced on smaller spatial scales means that a mosaic-like spread of natural areas throughout a landscape is beneficial, rather than isolated patches of forest dotted throughout larger areas.

These are important notes for environmental planners, who need to be considering exactly where agricultural areas (and further urban encroachment) should lie in the future. Ecosystems provide us with a host of tangible benefits, and we need to preserve these, not to mention the bevy of species that exist within them.


Dr. Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist who completed his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and will quite happily go for long walks in the forest in order to skip work and say he “got lost”. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.

Life At Sea: Reflections From Two And A Half Months On A Research Vessel

A tugboat maneuvering the RV Sonne into the harbor of Cape Town after four weeks of transit from Emden. Due to COVID-19, we were not allowed to leave the ship, not even for a jog in the harbor.

Germany’s largest research vessel – the RV Sonne – recently returned to harbor in the port town of Emden after 73 days, the longest-ever research cruise in the history of the ship. I was lucky enough to participate in the journey, which took us to through Cape Town, Walvis Bay and Las Palmas. As part of a team of 30 scientists, 22 women and 8 men, we set out to study one of the most productive ecosystems in the world: the Benguela Upwelling System off the coast of South Africa and Namibia.

Spending this long at sea is a truly special experience and here’s my personal account of what it’s like day-to-day on one of the largest research ships in the world.

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The Fascinating Lives of Colonial Animals

A physonect siphonophore colony observed during an exploration of the Central Pacific Basin. (Image Credit: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research)

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Giving A Voice To The High Seas

A hydrozoan jellyfish (Crossoto sp.) observed during the NOAA Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas expedition in 2016 and filmed at a depth of around 3700m. (Image Credit: NOAA Ocean Exploration & Research, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image cropped)

With the publication of the new IPCC climate report, I am once again asking myself: What can I do to mitigate the problems that our world is facing? Climate breakdown, pollution, loss of wildlife… our planet suffers from humans’ greed, selfishness and destructive exploitation. It seems almost impossible for one to have any influence or power for change. Global and political action is the only way to tackle the drastic and life-defining challenges that we and future generations will be confronted with. 

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Good News In Case The IPCC Report Got You Depressed

Image Credit: Charlie Marshall, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

Image Credit: Charlie Marshall, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

I’ve spent the last few days churning through the IPCC report and by jove, it is BLEAK. I’ll have a summary up soon in some format for those of you who find even the 42 page summary a bit daunting, but don’t look forward to it… But because it’s important to share hope and stories of real progress, I thought I’d churn through the news cycles and find some cases of things going well in the natural world.

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Good News In Case Watching the Ocean Burn Got You Depressed

Image Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

It’s been an awful week for the environment. If you’ve missed some of the news from the past four or five days, congratulations. But since climate-related depression is a very real thing, and there ARE always some success stories out there regarding the climate and our planet’s biodiversity, I thought I’d take this chance to share some positive stories from around the world.

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