Tag Archives: #biodiversity

Summer Field Moment

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I was out running yesterday and there was a cushion of sound, a papery hum, that accompanied me for a long stretch.

At first I thought it was the standard ambient noise of my run: a bit of mountain wind, shards of birdsong, maybe an underlying rush of water from the creek in the middle of the nearby forest (but only if it’s just rained). And then there’s the busy road at the lower end of our village, and the occasional plane above. It’s a familiar palette.

But this was closer, and I was pounding along and breathing heavily, so the soft crackle carpet of this sound took a while to push through to my awareness enough to make me stop and take a detour into the neighboring field.

I should have known all along. A field of rowdy insect song, full of hidden animals drunk on the heat of a summer morning.

So I thought I’d share it.

Root Migration

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What do a rare high-altitude Alpine snow flower and a sturdy South African cousin of the daisy have in common? They aren’t related, they look nothing like one another, and they are natives to completely different habitats in different parts of the world.

But over the past few years, they have both been on the move.

Rockfoil – Saxifraga androsacea
Source: Wikimedia

The saxifrage species, also known as rockfoil, is a tenacious ground plant with that waits all winter under snow cover before bursting forth with a graceful stalk and small blossoms. It’s a plant of extremes – extreme cold, extreme altitude, it thrives in rocky soil where little else grows. But the temperatures for which it is adapted are becoming more seldom, and with them, so is the plant.

Meanwhile, the South African ragwort (Senecio inaequidens), a tall herbaceous plant with bright sunny blossoms, is happy to take up the space. Able to survive higher temperatures and unfussy about altitudes, it is adapting well to Alpine heights. The ragwort’s seeds arrived in exports of South African wool, and are proving very comfortable in a number of regions across Europe and the rest of the world.

South African ragwort – Senecio inaequidens
Source: ResearchGate

According to a long-term study of one Italian region, Alpine winters are rapidly becoming warmer, up to 1.2°C (2.16°F) over the past 20 years, with tourism and skiing heading ever higher in search of winter sports, impacting the environment. And while both tourists and ragwort are happy at a variety of altitudes, saxifrage is running out of places to go.

What the two plants share mobility, but are separated by the extent of their comfort zones. With climate change, the ragworts will settle in, the saxifrages will be unsettled. Whatever other plants or animal life that relied on an ecosystem that includes this little saxifrage species will change along with its disappearance.

It’s a sign of profound transition that a plant native to South Africa is growing on Alpine rock faces. What we know of this ancient landscape as it has always been will have to be altered.

For the moment, the plants have movement and terrain in common. Their destinations, however, won’t be the same. One will likely adapt and move onwards, the other will likely move into memory.

Rockfoil
Photo: Florasilvestre

All Abuzz

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A friend challenged me to take nature photos for a week, and it resulted in several very nice shots of our garden, if I do say so myself.

But one of the most enjoyable aspects of the exercise took place when I went to take pictures of the two lavender bushes in front of our house. I planted them a few years ago, replacing ones that had gotten woody and sparse. These two bushes are veritable pollen engines, and the air around them is usually humming.

Photo: PKR

But it was only when I leaned in to take photos that I realized just what a busy miniature ecosystem these two plants have become. There were at least three different bee species in addition to the humble honeybees I usually see there – unfortunately, I couldn’t get all of them to pose for me. Several of them kept insisting on harvesting from lower branches, out of easy camera range.

And then there were the hummingbird hawk moths, the closest thing we have here in France to hummingbirds, at least in terms of size, movement and preferred food source.

Hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum).
Photo: Wikipedia

There were several other small pollinators, flitting black creatures I couldn’t catch on camera, as well as wasps, which I left alone. And then there are the lizards that lurk on the stone wall and the countless birds in the branches of the climbing vine, all waiting for an easy meal.

Photo: PKR

All this around two lavender bushes, a small world on our terrace. One more argument, if any were needed, on the value of planting for pollinators, even in limited spaces.

Photo: PKR

Pieces in the Mosaic

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Over the past few decades, we’ve grown used to campaigns imploring us to save one animal or another. Usually the photogenic or impressive species. Save The Whale, Save The Panda, and so on. Shortly after the United States’ Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, a case came along about a modest creature, the Tennessee snail darter. In keeping with its unprepossessing name, this innocuous little member of the perch family became famous for getting in the way of a construction project, the Tellico Dam.

The snail darter wasn’t considered glorious enough, in and of itself, to be a contender for ‘Save The’ status. And if the Endangered Species Act had been passed unanimously in the Senate and 390-12 in the House of Representatives, the snail darter showed the limits of congressional commitment. There were those who correctly saw that the movement to save the snail darter was not a campaign for a single species, but for an ecosystem at the expense of an infrastructure project.

Fish, Roman mosaic.

Republican Howard Baker of Tennessee argued at the time that “the snail darter has become an unfortunate example of environmental extremism, and this kind of extremism, if rewarded and allowed to persist, will spell the doom to the environmental protection movement in this country more surely and more quickly than anything else. (…)we who voted for the Endangered Species Act with the honest intentions of protecting such glories of nature as the wolf, the eagle, and other treasures have found that extremists with wholly different motives are using this noble act for meanly obstructive ends.”

This type of hierarchical perspective – the attitude that some animals are more noble, more glorious, prettier and thus more worthy of protection than others because we are impressed by them in some way – is one of those markers of humanity that trips us up time and time again. It’s typically human to not see the forest for all the trees.

It’s hard to imagine in this automated age, but let’s try to picture the mosaic of a human city as an ecosystem brimming with different species. Let’s insert activities and services in that world in the place of species, which often perform ‘services’ in their ecosystems.

St. Stephen mosaic, Askalon.
Source: Kingdom of Jordan

And at some point, some of the smaller activities start to disappear. Flower shops, say, or soap manufacturers, winemakers. Not disastrous, but not ideal. We miss the soap quite a bit, and the wine, and we give up decorative bouquets.

And then maybe a few bigger activities. Gas stations. Grocery infrastructure. Clothes shops. Coffee growers. We can still function and adapt, but life isn’t what it was. And then maybe a few big ones. Banks, grain growers, water infrastructure maintenance, cell phone towers. Electricity generators.

If we acknowledge that our society needs most of its parts to fully function, why should it be any different for the individual species of a given ecosystem?

The Lod mosaic.
Source: Espoarte

It’s been decades since various laws, treaties, and organizations were formed around the world to protect the environment, from the IUCN (The World Conservation Union) to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), and yet for the general public, species preservation is still by and large perceived as a one-off undertaking.

We are only beginning to understand the role that species play in the mosaics of their ecosystems, even as they are going extinct at the greatest rate since the Cretaceous era 66 million years ago. Meanwhile, as we insist that our human ecosystem is has more value, we are losing up to 140,000 species every year.

We imagine societal dystopias all the time in books, movies and games. We don’t even know what the ecosystem we call home will look like as we move further through the Anthropocene extinction event currently underway.

So do your bit. Support endangered species movements and campaigns. Saving a species, even something as ‘lowly’ as a snail darter, means a lot more than just saving a pretty face.

I wrote this for International Endangered Species Day – but it’s equally relevant for International Day for Biodiversity. Obviously.

And if you think that’s too many days to think about biodiversity, conservation, endangered species and extinction, my response would be: it’s 363 short of how many days these issues are of relevance to each and every one of us.

 

*Note: The snail darter is now considered ‘vulnerable’ after a few more small populations were found elsewhere in Tennessee. The economic impact of the Tellico Dam has not been assessed.

Running Evensong

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The bad news today was that I spent most of it trying – with the assistance of an electrician and a building contractor – to figure out why the electricity in our house kept going off for no apparent reason. One of those unnerving household events that I’d almost rather attribute to a poltergeist than to an impossible-to-locate shorted cable buried somewhere in one of the stone walls of this old pile we call home.

My morning run got delayed past noon, and then past evening, and then it was nearing sundown.

The good news today was that when I finally got out for a run, the air was still warm and fragrant with the scents of cut grass, the sweetness of wild flowers that line the roads, and this, the evening chorus of birds.


The run was also punctuated by cowbells, low sunset calls between free-range cattle, a carpet of amorous crickets, and the occasional whoosh of large mourning doves flying past.

The lights in the house are back on, but that’s not what recharged my batteries.

Failed Elver Balance

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As the season comes to an end for harvesting the young American eel known as elver, I thought I would revisit a topic I’ve often written about on ChampagneWhisky. The American eel was once a remarkably abundant marine animal along the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada. Along with its close cousins, the Japanese eel and the European eel, it was so plentiful in coastal waterways that people could go out with pillowcases and easily fill them with eel.

The American eel was a staple of early Colonial life, and was the main dish served at early Thanksgiving meals. Japanese eel was so popular that it was fished to near extinction in the 20th century, and the same holds true for the European eel.

Father William balances an eel on his nose from Alice in Wonderland.
Illustration: Charles Folkard

These days, elvers are fished in a very limited number of locations, during a short season – transparent, around the size of an earthworm, they are sold by the pound for shipping to aquaculture facilities in Asia. The appetite is large, the supply of local eel all but decimated outside of fish farms.

It’s not just the overfishing that is putting this mysterious animal at risk around the world. Habitat loss in the form of compromised river ways, climate change, pollution that affects reproductivity, barriers like dams or hydroelectric plants that block the progress of eels and elvers to their traditional grounds.

In Maine, where elvers represent an annual revenue of around $10 million (not counting the lucrative black market, of course), elver fishermen who hold the highly coveted and non-transferable licenses are, on the average, over the age of 50. There’s concern that their skills and knowledge won’t be transferred if the licensing process isn’t opened up to include younger newcomers via lottery.

Father William balances an eel on his nose from Alice in Wonderland
Illustration: John Tenniel

In the United Kingdom, fishing for the critically endangered European elvers is highly restricted, and patrols try to control any poaching.

Here’s my question: All three major eels used for human consumption are classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List, or in the case of the European eel, critically endangered. These animals have complex life cycles that still hold a large measure of mystery – they breed and spawn in the ocean, they return to rivers and lakes to grow. This complex process is one reason they can’t simply be farmed like some other fish.

They traverse thousands of miles in ever smaller numbers, and if this year’s catch included 600,000 elvers, that’s half a million fewer than will now be able to keep their species alive through all the other threats.

Glass eel, unpigmented elver, post-larval stage of the American Eel (Anguilla rostrata)
Photo: G. Verreault/Gov’t of Canada Species at Risk Registry

With all due respect to the fisheries along the eastern coast of North America, to the revived fisheries of the UK, to the aquaculture of Asian countries, maybe it’s time we lost our appetite for eel, at least for a while. Let’s grow other industries, other appetites, other revenues that aren’t carried out on the sinuous backs of ancient animals.

We think we can balance our relationship with the eel – but this won’t last.

Let the ageing fishermen of Maine record their knowledge, let the practices fade until they can, perhaps, be revived if and when the eels return.

Felling Heritage

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People used to intimately know places like the Bialowieza Forest, the last primeval forest in Europe, the wild places that made us what we are.

Now these place are relegated to small corners. They mainly inhabit our stories, little bits of baggage we carry with our culture through the millennia.

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance

Spanning the border between Poland and Belarus, the Bialowieza forest is home to the Europe’s tallest trees and is a refuge to countless species of birds, mammals and invertebrates. Although not unaffected by war, especially during and after WWI when most of its native bison were exterminated, the forest has remained largely intact and untouched for over 10,000 years.

This is the kind of mixed forest and rich ecosystem that once covered most of Europe, and this last remnant of 140,000 hectares (540 sq. m.) was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979.

It’s a living museum piece, a sprawling natural monument to the world as it was when humanity was young.

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance

Now that humanity is more mature, we have nation-states and borders, and the forest that was once a free-roaming thing is considered the territory of one place or another, whether or not UNESCO, or the European Union, or environmental activists, consider it to belong to all of humanity and the world.

In this case, the fact that some of the Bialowieza Forest is on the Polish side of an international border is critical. After decades of protection and management, the Polish government approved a massive increase in logging in the forest. This logging would go far beyond forest management activities meant to control pests or promote growth – 180,000 cubic metres (6.4m cubic feet) of wood over ten years.

Bialowieza Forest.
Photo: Emily Sun

Ignoring arguments put forth by environmentalists, scientists, universities, NGOs and a petition signed by 160,000 Polish citizens, the Polish government won a victory this week in a court challenge that would have granted environmental NGOs the legal status to challenge decisions made by the Polish Environment Minister, and to demand further environmental impact reports.

The next step will be charges brought by the European Union and possible sanctions for the violation of Poland’s agreements under the Natura 2000 program.

But, as with all such procedures, these things take time. And any pristine area where logging commences is an area that will be irretrievably altered. Bit by bit, what was a rampant cathedral to pre-humanity wildness becomes a memory, a smaller place, diminished by our hunt for resources and the money they bring.

Will the Bialowieza Forest become just one more living place packed away and stored our collective human memory?

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance

Up Close and Personal

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It’s generally acknowledged that we are now officially in the midst of a major phase of extinction when it comes to plant and animal life on our home planet. Whether it’s called the Sixth, the Holocene or the Anthropocene Extinction, this wave of die-offs is the biggest in almost 70 million years, when three-quarters of all plant, animal and sea life perished in the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction.

Pangolin and Pangolin Man. Images of the pangolin keepers who rescue and rehabilitate pangolins, the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world, hunted for its meat and scales. Image: Adrian Steirn via Africa Geographic

Pangolin and Pangolin Man. Images of the pangolin keepers who rescue and rehabilitate pangolins, the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world, hunted for its meat and scales.
Image: Adrian Steirn

There are a couple of key differences between these two major extinction events.

For one thing, the earlier extinction is widely considered to be the result of a massive asteroid impact that had a series of long-lasting effects – but there is some disagreement on that origination story. Other causes could have been a series of volcanic eruptions, or climate change, or sea level change. At this great distance, we don’t know if it was one factor or a combination of factors. In any case, it was a planetary change caused by elements far beyond the control of the species that went extinct as well as those that survived.

This time around, we have a fairly clear idea of what is causing the current round of extinction, which is proceeding at a rate estimated at 140,000 species per year. That’s every year, not a cumulative number. Species are dying off at far higher rates than we can count them.

This time, we know that what’s causing this epic die-off is a combination of climate change, habitat loss, human impact in the form of hunting, industry and pollution.

Contrary to the last time around, this is no outside force: This time, a single species is having the impact of a major asteroid. Or a series of volcanic eruptions.

On a positive note, in the midst of all this, there is hope. As it turns out, when we put our collective mind to a task, we can turn the tide. New Chinese regulations banning the ivory trade, a crackdown on trafficking in pangolin products and a classification by the IUCN of the animals as extremely threatened, might well end up saving these animals from oblivion.

It’s the efforts of people on the ground, like the Pangolin Men and the Tikki Hywood Trust shown in these images by Adrian Steirn, that make the crucial difference. Coalitions of farmers and activists, municipal and state bans on the use of known insecticides or the promotion of green havens, big regulations combined with hands-on local work and dedication, it all counts.

We won’t save everything, but we can slow the rate considerably. Individual efforts can make a real difference.

What animal or plant will you help save today?

All photos used with the kind permission of Adrian Steirn.

Beneath the Sea

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It always counts as a surprise when we find out that unexpected networks have been operating right under our collective noses. We use the word ‘discovery’ to describe the newness to our understanding, even if, in retrospect, it might be a bit like describing a city’s take-out food delivery system as a ‘discovery’ just because no one had noticed a connection between all the scooters with restaurant names and the arrival of restaurant food at private homes.

The discovery, in this case, is something that makes a lot of sense: At least one kind of sea grass that flowers underwater manages to employ underwater pollinators in a manner similar to terrestrial flowering plants that use airborne pollinators like bees, bats and birds.

A meadow of Thalassia testudinum, turtlegrass. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A meadow of Thalassia testudinum, turtlegrass. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

There aren’t many plants that actually flower under water – most produce their flowers above the water surface. Thalassia testudinum, known as turtlegrass, grows in large meadows, and produces small flowers near the seabed. The male flowers release pollen in the evening, and until now it was thought that the pollen was carried to female plants solely via water currents.

But a study published last fall in Nature Communications showed that there is another factor that increased the distribution of pollen. In a series of aquarium-based experiments, it was demonstrated that a variety of invertebrates, from spider crab larvae to tiny crustaceans to marine worms, are drawn to the male and female flowers, and these fauna were proven to fulfil the criteria of being characterized as pollinators* even in the absence of water flow.

The researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico state that that other, larger animals might also contribute to pollination, but that these were not included in this particular study. Unlike bees, there’s no hive or honey involved. But, like their terrestrial counterparts, the fauna here were attracted to the flowers for feeding, and moved between the blossoms in search of more food.

A male turtlegrass flower releases its nocturnal pollen. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A male turtlegrass flower releases its nocturnal pollen. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

Look at the intelligence of turtlegrass. It has small flowers, and they aren’t packed densely together, waving in the breeze. Rather, they are close to the sea bed and spaced well apart. Relying solely on water flow to pollinate might not do the trick. Why not make the petals sticky and attractive to the myriad small creatures abundant in the water, and get them to do a bit of the heavy pollen lifting for extra evolutionary insurance?

I applaud lead researcher Brigitta van Tussenbroek and her research team for noticing and studying this fascinating network of activity, which they have given the name zoobenthophilous pollination, i.e. pollination carried out by animals close to the sea bed. The discovery of the role fauna play in underwater pollination could help better understand and protect these ecosystems, which, as van Tussenbroek and her colleagues state, “are amongst the world’s most productive ecosystems. (They) improve water transparency, stabilize coastlines and store carbon, and also provide food and shelter to a diverse faunal community.”

I have the feeling it may just be the beginning of a deeper understanding of many things that are right in front of us, but which we aren’t yet seeing. All it requires is a willingness to shift our perspective.

A female turtlegrass flower with visiting invertebrates, bits of pollen and sand. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A female turtlegrass flower with visiting invertebrates, bits of pollen and sand. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

*From the study “Experimental evidence of pollination in marine flowers by invertebrate faunathe criteria for the animals to be considered pollinators are:

(1) both male and female organs (of the flowers) are visited, (2) the visitor carries pollen, (3) the visitor transfers pollen between male and female sexual organs, (4) pollen deposition by the visitor results in successful fertilization, estimated as pollen germination on the stigmas, pollen tube growth or seed set.

Treehugger

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I spent a large portion of my youth in an untamed forest on the California coast–it was the 1970s, we lived off-grid, and our wood cabins were built in small clearings amidst bay trees, madrone, manzanita, and coast live oak. A fragrant forest of graceful limbs that rustled in gentle breezes and sang sharply during storms.

I was an avid reader of Greek mythology, of fairy tales, of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – all stories in which forests and trees play a major role, either as protagonists or settings. It was easy to believe in magic in a place like that.

It followed that I was obsessed with stories of wood creatures and trees that could communicate, and much like young readers of more recent generations waited for their letter from Hogwart’s, I waited for the trees to come to life and reveal themselves in a more human form, or at least to speak to me in a language I could understand.

Illustration for The Old Woman In The Wood, from Little brother & little sister and other tales by the Brothers Grimm (1917), by one of my favorite illustrators. Artist: Arthur Rackham

Illustration for The Old Woman In The Wood, from Little brother & little sister and other tales by the Brothers Grimm (1917), by one of my favorite illustrators. This tale is about a forest that saves a young woman from certain death–she in turn saves the trees by releasing them from long enchantment.
Artist: Arthur Rackham

That they never did start talking to me is probably for the best, and it didn’t diminish my affection. It’s long been accepted that they have their own way of communicating, even if it’s not in ways we can always interpret into human terms. I haven’t always been able to explain my deep affinity for forests, and even for specific trees, in a way that doesn’t sound a bit unbalanced, so it’s a joy to see a book like the one Peter Wohlleben wrote become so popular.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World has been on the bestseller lists for months in a variety of countries, including its native highly urbanized and industrialized Germany.

From a review in the New York Times: “Presenting scientific research and his own observations in highly anthropomorphic terms, the matter-of-fact Mr. Wohlleben has delighted readers and talk-show audiences alike with the news — long known to biologists — that trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.”

With a training in forestry, which taught Mr. Wohlleben how to think of trees as machines and natural resources, years of close observation taught him something else: How to see trees as fellow travelers.

Maybe his ideas make sense to me because he and I are of the same age, or because we both grew up in forests and in a similar era of environmental thought. Whatever the reason, it does me good to see someone articulate what I suspected all along, back when I was just a sapling of a treehugger: There’s more to trees than meets the eye.