Tag Archives: climate change

Aliens & Invaders & Exotics, Oh My: The Language of Invasive Biology

The Burmese python, which has spread throughout the Everglades in Florida as a result of accidental or intentional releases by pet owners (Image Credit: US NInvaders, Aliens, and tational Park ServicePublic Domain Mark 1.0, Image Cropped)

Language is important. It’s a lesson many biological scientists would have learned a long time ago if we hadn’t kept social sciences at such a wary arm’s length. Ecologists have a tendency to label and relabel ecological concepts (anyone up for a debate about the word ‘niche’?), species and even global phenomena (think global warming vs. climate change) based on anything from shifts in public perception to new findings that challenge our earlier labels.

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Esther Ngumbi: Food Security in the Face of Climate Change

One of the few positives to come out of a recent spate of catastrophic weather events has been the fact that climate change is now nigh on undeniable, and more people than ever are working to prevent its future effects. Yet there are parts of the world in which climate change is more than the progenitor of random disasters, where it has become an everyday reality.

One such area is sub-Saharan Africa. Despite being one of the poorest regions of the world, it’s also a region that has enormous potential for agricultural transformation, helping to solve not only local food crises, but global ones as well. A prominent example is Kenya, where the agricultural sector contributes to over half of the Gross Domestic Product, and provides food and employment for more than 80% of the population. Working for Kenya and other countries in the region is the chance to avoid mistakes made by other regions in the past, as they benefit both from hindsight and improved technology. Yet working against them is that encroaching threat of climate change.

It’s a topic that Assistant Professor Esther Ngumbi, of the University of Illinois has been vocal about. Esther grew up on a farm in rural Kenya, and has witnessed the effects of increased drought and weather variability over the last decade. Esther’s work on food security in Africa has seen her work published in everything from the Journal of Chemical Ecology to Times Magazine.

At 2019’s BES Annual meeting, I got the chance to speak to Esther about everything from African governments to the shifting of climate baselines.

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The How and Why of Climate-Mediated Extinction

Image Credit: Dreamy Pixel, CC BY 4.0

Recent responses to climate change reveal the drivers of species extinction and survival (2020) Román-Palacios & Wiens, PNAS, https:/doi/10.1073/pnas.1913007117

The Crux

We tend to think of climate change as bad, and despite the fact that some organisms will benefit from it, many others won’t. A big part of why we consider it bad is that species are predicted to be lost at an alarming rate, with some estimates as high as 54% of all organisms going extinct. An issue with these predictions is that they tend to assume that species will track their preferred temperature and precipitation conditions, but this eliminates any ability of organisms to adapt to their new normal over time.

Today’s authors wanted to use data from previous studies to estimate how species adapt (or don’t) to climate change. Although previous work has shown that climate change is detrimental for many species, this study aimed to learn if it was due to changes in the overall temperature, changes in the extremes (i.e. how hot the hottest day is), or was it the sheer speed of change that did organisms in. Read more

It Pays to Break from the Crowd

Image Credit: Pete, CC BY-NC 2.0

Increased reproductive success through parasitoid release at a range margin: Implications for range shifts induced by climate change (2020) MacKay, Gross, & Ryder, Journal of Biogeography, https://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.13795

The Crux

Predicting the response of organisms to climate change is a challenge for ecologists and wildlife managers alike. Fortunately, some responses are common enough that it is still possible to make fairly accurate predictions about them without too much information. One common response is that of the range shift, whereby a population of organisms facing some alteration (eg. climate change) in their current habitat, making it unfavorable, begin to move to another location. This allows them to track favorable environmental conditions and possibly mitigate any negative effects of climate change.

Sounds easy, right? Just pack it all up and move when things get hard? Well, for some organisms it may be that simple (looking at you, birds), but for others (like trees) it is significantly harder to do so. Trees (and other plants) are limited in that they depend on other organisms or things like wind to help disperse their seeds. Making things even more difficult are plant species that depend on specific pollinators, and in order for a successful range shift to happen trees AND their pollinators have to make the move. Today’s authors wanted to study how relationships between trees and their pollinators changed at the leading edge of a range shift, allowing them to understand how and why trees succeed during a range shift.

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It’s a Matter of Scale

Image Credit: Kevin Gill, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

No consistent effects of humans on animal genetic diversity worldwide (2020) Millette et al, Ecology Letters, https://doi.org/10.1111/ele.13394

The Crux

As a species, we humans have had enormous negative effects on the planet, and we have talked about many of these issues and how they relate to ecology on many separate occasions here on Ecology for the Masses (see here, here, and here). A key implication of these human-induced changes to our planet are that many organisms are threatened with extinction, which can be bad for us as well (looking at you insect apocalypse).

Having said all of that, a lot of the work that has been done in this area has focused on specific groups (like the charismatic koala). By doing so, we run the risk of not understanding the global pattern but instead draw conclusions based off of local patterns. While we sometimes must make these kind of generalizations, this is not always a good idea. For example, we cannot look at the health of animal populations in New York City and make statements about the entirety of all of the animal populations in North America. To get around that issue, today’s authors investigated, on a global scale, if humans were having a global impact on animal genetic diversity.

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Can’t Stand the Heat? Get Out of the Host!

Image Credit: Andrew DuBois, CC BY-NC 2.0, Image Cropped

Behavioural fever reduces ranaviral infection in toads (2019) Sauer et al, Functional Ecology, https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.13427

The Crux

Being infected with a pathogen such as a bacteria or virus can be bad for whatever organism is unfortunate enough to suffer the infection, and sometimes it’s bad enough to kill the host. Because of that, there is a strong pressure to engage in behaviors that reduce the chances of becoming infected in the first place. While these behaviors can be inherited and evolve over time, others take place within the lifetime of the infected individual itself, making it a ‘plastic’ response (see the “Did You Know” from our previous breakdown for the difference between plasticity and evolution).

One plastic response is that of a behavioral fever. In organisms that cannot regulate their own body temperature, like reptiles and amphibians, this behavior involves moving from an area with low temperature to one with a higher temperature, ideally limiting the damage that a pathogen can do or even killing it outright. Because this behavioral fever is so dependent on temperature, it is important to know how climate change may impact emerging infectious disease.

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What Being Functionally Extinct Means, Why Koalas Aren’t, and Why Things Are Still Pretty Dire

Image Credit: Swallowtail Grass Seeds, Public Domain Mark 1.0, Image Cropped

There has been a lot of recent (and well deserved) press surrounding the bush fires in Australia. Because of these fires countless animal and plant life has been lost, and the most visible example of that are the koalas. You probably saw the video of a woman running into a burning area to save a koala from the fire*. Unfortunately, most of the koalas didn’t have people around to save them and over 1,000 are estimated to have died. Because of this a group has claimed that koalas are now “functionally extinct”, and the press has run with this claim. While it is unfortunate that this misinformation spread so quickly and so widely, the good news is that koalas are in fact NOT functionally extinct. Great! But what does being “functionally extinct” mean? 

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