Tag Archives: life

Johanna Schmitt: Climate Change and Plant Life

We sometimes ignore the effects of climate change on plant life, but the potential severity of these effects isn’t something that should be ignored for long (Image Credit: Pisauakan, CC0)

From the California wildfires to the recent strikes across Australian primary schools, climate change is a topic that only seems to grow in its ubiquity. Yet whilst humans are increasingly focused on more obvious repercussions, such as extreme weather events, animal extinctions and shifting coastlines, we sometimes forget that climate change will have severe repercussions for plant life as well.

I spoke to Professor Johanna Schmitt of the University of California earlier this year to discuss some of those repercussions. Johanna’s team is working to determine how well certain plant species will be able to adapt in the face of rapid climate change.

Sam Perrin (SP): The term climate change is ubiquitous these days, yet we often don’t talk about plants in relation to its effects. What will some of the effects of climate change be on plant life?

Professor Johanna Schmitt, Department of Evolution and Ecology, University of California (JS): Well from a North American perspective, let’s start with seasonality. The growing season is longer, spring is coming earlier, summers are hotter, winters are warmer. And so in a lot of temperate areas trees are leafing out earlier. And in colder areas, there’s potential that they won’t be adapting to the warmer weather, and will continue to act on temperature cues, which would be bad. There’s definitely evidence of changes in phenology, in seasonal timing of phylogenic effects. There certainly is already evidence of shifts northward in some plant species, and local extinction of species in their southernmost populations.

Looking at California, we’ve just come out of a mega-drought. We have cyclical droughts, and they’re getting worse because the temperature’s rising. Among other things, it means the snow packs are much lower in California. That means water supplies are lower, because there’s less and less water from the melting snow pack. If precipitation all comes as rain in the winter, then that reservoir of snow is not there, so there’s no water in the summer for the farmers. And that also means the species in the mountains which previously relied on the water from snow melt can’t get through the summer. So we’re seeing pretty massive forest die-offs. And then in addition to that you have the bark beetles, which decimate trees. In parts of the western United States, these bark beetles can produce an extra generation if the winters aren’t cold enough and so the populations expand. I was hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Park a few years ago and the trees had been torn to shreds by these bark beetles.

And off the back of all this we’ve obviously had huge fires. This last fire year in California was record horrible. That’s something that affects plant life that then affects humans big time.

SP: Will the agriculture industry have to start adapting?

JS: There’s a group at Stanford who have been trying to figure out if there’s a signature of temperature affecting crop yields by looking at historical data. And it appears that higher temperatures are affecting crop yields and they expect that to become an issue in the future. This idea that if there’s more carbon dioxide, that will help fertilise the crops and they’ll do fine doesn’t seem to hold if you go beyond critical temperatures. Bottom line is, yes, people are concerned about crop yields being affected.

SP: Things like drought and forest die-off have become more extreme these days. But there’s a danger of this becoming the new norm for people. How do we fight those shifting baselines?

JS: It’s a really interesting concept. Because the younger generation doesn’t remember stuff that my generation does. For kids today, these California wildfires will be the new normal. When I was a little girl growing up outside of Pennsylvania we used to go ice-skating on the ponds all the time after they would freeze in winter. Nobody does that anymore because the ponds don’t freeze.

You look at the record of temperatures. I take Introduction to Biology lectures, and I show the carbon dioxide curve from Mauna Loa in Hawaii, and I show them that when I was born, CO2 was 320 parts per million, and then show them the increase just in their lifetime. So now, being over 400ppm is the new normal. Kids today won’t ever remember it being less than that. People are getting more used to extreme heat events which we just didn’t have 50 years ago.

Arabidopsis thaliana, which Johanna's lab works with, is a handy model species for looking at the effects of climate change on plant life

Arabidopsis thaliana, which Johanna’s lab works with, is a handy model species for looking at the effects of climate change on plant life (Image Credit: Dawid Skalec)

SP: To what extent can we predict the adaptation of some of these species to climate change?

JS: Not very well, that’s really the take-home message. Foresters have the best ability to do that because they’ve been doing large scale trials, taking genotypes from across a species’ range and growing them in different climates across that range. By doing that you can ask how different genotypes perform in different climates. And that allows you to say how much variation is there within the species across the range, and you can also look at how much variation is there within populations. Take something like budset, the timing of when to set your buds and cease growth, shut down, and go dormant so you don’t get killed by the frost. It’s a pretty hard deadline for conifer trees. But from year to year the frost comes at slightly different times. So some years genotypes that are more risk-averse do better and some years others that are more risk-prone do better, so they’d have alternate good years. And this means variation can help a species persist in a changing climate

So for forest trees there may be a fair amount of potential for adaptation. And now people are starting to look at small endemic plant species. Jill Anderson at the University of Georgia has been doing some really interesting work of late on adaptation to elevation across an altitudinal gradient. They combined genotypes at low, medium and high elevations, and combined those mixed gardens with snow manipulation. They either removed or added snow, and they found was evidence of adaptation for the species which were exposed to snow. So that suggested that the population may have trouble keeping up if we have a declining snow pack.

SP: Why is predicting these changes so difficult?

JS: Well for one thing we don’t really know what scenario we’ll be looking at in a few years. I’m pretty pessimistic given events of the last few years that we’re going to have anything but an aggressive carbon emissions scenario. I think it’s going to depend upon the species. We’re going to have to help out. I think many species are not going to be able to evolve fast enough in place. So we’ll have to intervene with assisted gene flow, but how do we choose which ones we want to assist?

SP: Can you take me through the concept of assisted gene flow?

JS: So we want to find out which climate a species likes and where’s that climate going to be in the future. There’s some cases where in fact the species range in the future will be almost non-overlapping with the range it’s in now. So how’s it going to get there? After the last glacial maximum, when the glaciers retreated the trees were able to keep up, but that was happening in orders of magnitudes slower than the rate that the climate is changing now.

The idea is for crucial keystone species, species that are important to the ecosystem, that we should be helping them to move. And that’s very controversial. Because are you essentially engineering species invasions, with limited knowledge of what that will do to the community that is already there. Assisted migration isn’t that aggressive. The idea is that within an existing species range, you move genotypes around to maximise the genetic variation to cope with the climate that’s coming. So in general that would be making sure you’re saving all the genotypes you can from that southernmost edge before they go extinct. And then moving them polewards to provide genetic material for the new climate.

To read up on the work that Johanna’s lab does, click here.

Refining Nemo: Musings from the Australian Society of Fish Biology Conference

The Australian Society of Fish Biology's 2018 Conference delivered some of the most engaging, intriguing talks I've had the pleasure of witnessing

As a fish ecologist living in Norway, it’s a joy to be able to travel to Melbourne and interact with the people that are driving forward fish science in my home country. So when I found out that the Australian Society of Fish Biology’s annual conference was taking place 3 days after my first flight home since 2016, I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

We’re on the last day of the conference at the moment, and over the next 2 months I’m looking forward to bringing you a number of insights, including interviews with guest speakers Eva Plaganyi and Gretta Pecl and pioneers of intriguing projects like Peter Unmack and Jarod Lyon. I’ll also have a fish edition of The Changing Face of Ecology, and some articles on how the angling community and the fish science community interact in a country with one of the most unique fish assemblages in the world.

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A Snapshot of Ireland’s Ecological Landscape

Last week, the NTNU University Museum’s Department of Natural History was benevolent enough to send its staff on a four day journey around Ireland. My previous experiences with Ireland have been two somewhat ill-fated trips on New Year’s Eve 2008 and St. Patrick’s Day 2012, so I was eager to see Ireland’s greener side. In an attempt to spruik some of the more interesting parts of the trip, I’ve broken it down below.

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Paul Hebert: The Inventory of Life

I spoke to Professor Paul Hebert, the "grandfather of DNA barcoding", on his attempt to classify all muticellular life

Humans have always tried to categorise the world around us. From our early interpretation of the four elements to Linnaeus’ revolutionary system in the 1700s, we’ve always sought to understand better the life that we share the planet with. On my visit to the University of Guelph this year, I was able to sit down with a scientist who is attempting to classify all multi-cellular life.

Professor Paul Hebert is Scientific Director of the International Barcode of Life project, a consortium whose goal it is to document all life on our planet. I spoke with the man nicknamed the “father of DNA barcoding” about the magic that has revolutionised biodiversity science in the last 50 years, and how it’s being used today.

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Andrew Hendry: Making the Most of Life as a PhD

Andrew on a work-life balance - "the most productive people are the ones who are enjoying what they’re doing the most..."

A month ago, Kate Layton-Matthews and I sat down with Andrew Hendry to talk about eco-evolutionary dynamics. What started as a light aside about Andrew’s blog quickly turned to a deeper discussion about some of the opportunities and problems that PhD students and other young scientists face today. We went on to explore choosing your ideal project, finding a job in academia, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Sam Perrin (SP): You run a blog, which among other things, provides a lot of advice for young scientists. What prompted you to start that?

Andrew Hendry (AH): My students had encouraged me to do a blog. That was one aspect. But the other thing was that you find yourself giving the same advice to people over and over again; and realising that it might be good to write that advice down, so it’s readily available for all students. That was the set of circumstances that led me to start writing, and people really liked it.

I think one of the things that works is that the advice I give is different from other “experts.” I don’t just repeat the typical advice you get. I sometimes take views that are counter, or at least subtly counter to typical views, and so it makes it a little more interesting for people, they can get a different perspective.

Kate Layton-Matthews (KLM): Is there certain content you prefer to write about?

AH: I don’t really write about my own research on the blog, I prefer to invite people whose research I think is interesting. But it’s also a blog about the process of science, about the modern world of publishing, interactions with supervisors, fear of getting a job, stuff like that.

KLM: Would you say that it’s an issue that people aren’t promoting science in this more relaxed way?

AH: There aren’t a lot of scientists who blog. There are certainly a lot of blogs, but they’re not usually written by scientists. I think there’s a niche for that. There’s a lot of discussion now about how scientists should be advocates in the age of Trump. I’m not certain that it’s the best thing to encourage all scientists to do. Instead, we should, as scientists, do what we’re comfortable doing. So I wouldn’t suggest that every scientist has a blog if they don’t enjoy doing it. It’s beneficial to them, but I don’t think it should be a requirement.

For me, I like to argue. I like to be in the pub and have a discussion about something and have a counter-opinion. The blog is just a way of doing that in a way that a broader audience can see what you’re discussing. It’s also really nice to be able to write and not agonise over every single word. You write more like a conversation, instead of having to be technically precise. You can create a narrative that is as if you were telling a joke or trying to make a compelling story, and you could be done in 2 hours. So it’s just fun to do, and people like it, and I like it, if there’s a typo in there I don’t care. My mum does though. She tells me all the time about typos on my blog.

Andrew on a work-life balance - "the most productive people are the ones who are enjoying what they’re doing the most..."

Andrew with friend and colleague Marc Johnson on a field trip in the Galapagos, with both families in tow (Image Credit: Andrew Hendry, McGill University)

“I don’t just repeat the typical advice you get. I sometimes take views that are counter, or at least subtly counter to typical views, and so it makes it a little more interesting for people, they can get a different perspective.”

SP: You were mentioned you were getting asked the same questions over and over. What was the one that cropped up the most?

AH: I think that the blog that has proven most useful for people was advice on how to structure the story you tell in a proposal, or a paper or a talk. You often read an academic’s work and they don’t provide an exciting narrative to the story. Instead there’s a bunch of background information and you’re reading it, but you don’t know why you’re reading it.

I had seen an administrator at McGill who had said that proposals should have a werewolf and a silver bullet – there’s a problem, a werewolf, in the world, and your proposal describes a silver bullet that is your research. I extend that to the idea of a baby, a werewolf and a silver bullet. You first set the reader up with something they care about. They see something as an important subject, maybe it’s the conservation of a species, maybe it’s an ecological theory, the evolution of the diversity of latitudinal gradients in species richness, or whatever.

It conditions the reader to agree with the overall motivation for your research. Then you introduce one big problem threatening the baby. That could be a threat to the conservation of organisms, or some big gap in the theory. This gets the reader invested, and interested in how you will deal with it. And then the next part presents the silver bullet to kill that werewolf, or shows that the werewolf isn’t really there, or reveals a new werewolf. It’s the key study, or observation that is going to address the werewolf, and thereby save the baby.

“[T]he optimal strategy for advancing your career is to do something that you find interesting and you’re passionate about…”

SP: You’ve worked in the Galapagos islands, which is a dream for a lot of ecologists, as opposed to being cooped up in front of a computer. For people who have watched Planet Earth over and over and want to do something exotic, what sort of advice do you have for them to make that sort of thing happen?

AH: I would say just go. A lot of people struggle trying to figure out what topic they should work on as young scientists. They should be thinking, “do I want to work in Africa because I like lions, or the Galapagos because it’s cool, or reindeer in Svalbard”. Or should find a question that really intrigues them, and then ask, “ok now what system is that right system to do that on?”. Or they should say “my goodness we know nothing about this island off the coast of Norway”, and they go and study that.

But instead people do a lot of strategic thinking about what they think is the right career choice. A master’s student might finish their thesis on a system that nobody knows anything about, and be frustrated by the lack of genomic resources, and say “I should go work on a model system instead”. I think people should do what feels like the right thing at that moment. They should be informed about the particular system and they shouldn’t go in naïvely, but I think people should follow their heart and do what makes sense for them, because the most productive people are the ones who are enjoying what they’re doing the most, and even if they’re not productive, they’re still enjoying it.


The flexibility of work schedule as a PhD student can often be a downside, but putting off work to enjoy life can make you more productive (Image credit: Piled Higher and Deeper)

KLM: So it’s all related to being properly informed.

AH: Absolutely. Talk to a lot of people, get the right info, but don’t say “what’s the optimal strategy for advancing my career”. I don’t like that kind of thinking, because the optimal strategy for advancing your career is to do something that you find interesting and you’re passionate about independent of guessing what others might find interesting and important.

“[T]he most productive people are the ones who are enjoying what they’re doing the most…”

KLM: It seems like at PhD level, people seem to freak out a bit about how much they have to do, and might slightly lose their life’s social component, but you seem to do a lot of fun things, fishing, climbing and so on. Do you have any tips on how to maintain a good work/life balance?

AH: I think, in essence, the answer is that you should generally try to do things that you enjoy doing. If you want to take more time off, take more time off. If you enjoy your work, then you should do the work. If the work/life balance you have is stressing you out, then you should shift in one direction or the other, because there’s no point in being upset about everything all the time. Now, of course, that can come in conflict with your supervisor telling you to do x, y or z, but one would like to think that supervisors would have a better realisation of the fact that the students will be most productive if they’re happy, and working on their own terms.

A lot of people like to separate work and life, but for me, work came from life, so they’re the same thing. I travel the world, look at animals, try to understand how they work, take pictures of them, take my family there, I do research with my kids. I picked a job that I enjoyed, so I don’t have to worry so much about a work/life balance.

But there are a couple of other points independent of that. I think a lot of junior scientists think that a lot of senior scientists work a lot more than they actually do. I think supervisors often are efficient, and they work hard and intensely, and then they play hard and intensely. I also do lots of things that I enjoy doing that aren’t directly related to work. And sometimes my students are frustrated because I don’t respond quickly enough to emails, but I’m also sure that me being happy is something that’s better for them too.

The other thing is that one of the great fears is that if you’re not working all the time, you won’t get a job. The truth is that getting a job does require hard work and publishing papers. But there’s one other thing, and that is not being really picky about the geographical location that you want to be in. So if you restrict yourself to Trondheim, for example, it’s going to be hard to get the precise job you want. Even if you restrict yourself to Norway, it’s going to be hard. But if you restrict yourself to the world, there’s thousands of ecology jobs advertised every year.

If you find a new faculty position somewhere, regardless of whether you like the location or not, as long as it’s a research intensive University, they’ll give you a good start-up package! You’ll be able to recruit students, you do your research, excel at it, and then if you don’t like the place, you leave and then you’re more attractive elsewhere. You’re not marrying the place, you’re dating it.

KLM: It’s totally dependent on what you want out of it, really.

AH: Yeah, and it ties back to this work-life balance. You should achieve the balance that you want. It might mean that you’re not published in Nature or Science every year, but that’s fine because you want more time with family, or skiing across Scandinavia. You can do that as a professor.

Many thanks to Professor Hendry for taking the time to speak with us. You can read his blog here.