When does saving nature make “cents”?

Fifty football pitches worth of forest were apparently lost every minute between 2000 and 2012 according to a recent paper by Matt Hansen et al.  And there is little reason to expect this to be different today.  This tremendous pace of forest loss is mostly driven by the clearance of land for agriculture, yet comes at a tremendous cost to the other benefits that people obtain from forests, including carbon sequestration, water purification, and biodiversity.

In a new primer for PLoS Biology – think tutorial more than review – we deliver an overview of the global challenge of reconciling forest conservation with land clearance for agriculture.  We explain how the economic valuation of ecosystem services can provide a way to choose between allocating land to either conservation or development, highlighting a new paper in PLoS Biology by Roman Carrasco and colleagues.  In their paper, Carrasco et al. test how different scenarios of global agricultural production might trade off against the multiple ecosystem services delivered by tropical forests.  They find that the value of those services destroyed by deforestation exceeds the economic benefits of agriculture, except in a few regions if greater yields of high-value crops are eventually realised.  Together, the analytical framework and results of Carrasco et al. should inform the spatial prioritisation of real-world interventions such as REDD+ and can help deliver better environmental and economic outcomes worldwide.  Definitely worth a read!

Finding “hidden” effects of nonnative plant invasion

I seem to have missed this post by Angela Brandt about her great new New Phyt paper. You should check it out below and follow her blog to keep up with all the exciting work she is doing:

Angela J Brandt

In my post-doc work on how colonisation and diversification of plant lineages can have a legacy effect on extant plant communities, we previously showed that understanding evolutionary priority effects is necessary to predict the structure and function of pristine ecological communities. In a paper just published in New Phytologist, we tested whether anthropogenically-driven changes in available habitat and mass immigration (i.e. non-native invasion) eliminate the role of evolutionary priority effects in community assembly. We advanced the theory that radiating lineages can monopolize niche space by showing that evolutionary drivers of community assembly also operate in new habitat created by anthropogenic disturbance. However, we also demonstrated that non-native invasion can erase the otherwise strong role of evolutionary priority effects in shaping native community composition. This work is important and timely because it indicates that effects of human-induced global change on community assembly extend beyond purely ecological dynamics to the ecological consequences of…

View original post 2 more words

Change (your seed size) fast and multiply

Our latest paper examining the role of life history traits in explaining the vast unevenness of species diversity across the flowering plant Tree of Life has just appeared online at PLoS Biology.  The paper was led by Javi Igea and emerged from a very successful BBSRC DTP rotation project by Eleanor Miller, in collaboration with Alex Papadopulos.

Using the largest available phylogenetic tree of plants coupled with an unparalleled trait dataset, we analysed how seed size and its rate of change across the phylogeny were correlated with the rate of species formation.  Seed size is crucial to plant evolution because it confers adaptation to different environment conditions and influences many other aspects of life history, including dispersal, resistance to stress, and colonisation potential.  We subsequently found that faster rates of seed size change were associated with faster rates of speciation, probably by fostering the appearance of reproductive barriers between lineages.  We also found that smaller-seeded species speciated faster than larger-seeded ones.  These results underscore the importance of morphological traits, and particularly their rate of evolution, in promoting species divergence across one of the largest radiations of organisms on the planet.

Although it has taken a bit longer than we would have liked – no thanks to some poor timing with #BAMMgate – the paper brings together an impressive toolbox of complementary macro-evolutionary analyses to deliver a compelling explanation for one of nature’s enduring mysteries.  Well done all!

Forests feed lake life

Our latest paper has just appeared in Science Advances.  In it, we present widespread evidence that aquatic consumers use terrestrial resources depending on the features of surrounding catchments.  It is really nice to see this out as it caps the food web workshop we organised in Cambridge more than two years ago and includes data we collected during our summer 2014 field campaign.  There’s a nice write up of the work put out by our friends at the Cary Institute.

The work emerged out of our forest fuel fish growth story, which hinted that there can be a lot of variation in the extent to which lake food webs use terrestrially derived material, depending on the features of the surrounding catchments.  With funding from a NERC collaborative grant, our new paper managed to assemble the largest dataset to date of the isotopic composition of zooplankton and their associated food webs from across 147 lakes spanning the boreal to subtropics.  Our aim was to address the use of terrestrial resource in lake food webs once and for all.

Algae and land plants differ in their assimilation of heavy versus light forms of atoms such as carbon, allowing the ratios between these two forms to be used as dietary tracers.  Using these isotopic signatures, we discovered that half of all the zooplankton samples we amassed were comprised of at least 42% terrestrially derived material, but this was underpinned by large variation ranging from 11 to 83%.  Using some awfully complex stats, we go on to show that terrestrial support of zooplankton was generally greatest in lakes with long shorelines and surrounded by dense vegetation and rich soils.  This work now explains the large variation in terrestrial resource use by aquatic food webs and delivers a major advance towards resolving the ‘controversy’ around this process.

Rewinding the Tape of Life

Journal of Ecology Blog

If evolution happened anew, what would the present-day plant world look like?  That is, would the randomized processes that govern evolutionary change tell a different story? And particularly for plants which are sessile organisms, is the starting point of ‘who gets there first’ the most important of all?

Priority effects – the order and timing of species arrival into local communities – can affect ecological community structure and functioning, with profound effects for species persistence and ecological interactions (Chase et al., 2000; van de Voorde et al., 2011). As such, the arrival of different species at different times can dramatically alter the evolutionary tapestry of any given system on ecological time frames, but also in evolutionary time. In particular, the diversification of early arriving species can pre-empt available niche space to prevent the establishment, dominance or diversification of species that arrive later on down the road.

View original post 624 more words

A closed loop of ideas

This week, I was lucky enough to go to Lausanne, a small Swiss city on Lac Léman, to attend the MELiSSA Workshop. What is MELiSSA? As an ecologist, it is unlikely that you are acquainted with this European Space Agency (ESA) project, which stands for Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative. It was created in 1989 (read more on how it began here) and brings together European and Canadian partners from 13 different countries in an attempt to fulfill human needs in outer space via the development of life in closed systems. The main ideas include: recycling waste and carbon dioxide aboard spacecraft by using bacteria; and producing food, water, and oxygen in a regenerative way to keep costs low. Put in their words, it aims “at a total conversion of the organic wastes and CO2 to oxygen, water and food”.

Melissa_lake

Terrestrial lake eco-loop. Copyright: ESA.

 

Continue reading

Making sense of canopies

Béatrice Wedeux and David Coomes published a paper in Biogeosciences analysing how environmental factors and selective logging interact to shape the canopies of tropical forests. Using airborne laser scanning technology across a 750 km2peat swamp forest landscape in Borneo, the study reveals strong shifts in canopy height and gap patterns along environmental gradients linked to changing peat depth. In areas where logging roads were detected on historical satellite imagery, the canopy is lowered and has larger gaps, especially so on deep peat where tree growth is thought to be limited by low nutrient availability and waterlogging. The study identifies a close link between the height and the gap structure of tropical peat swamp forests at the landscape scale and reinforces the vulnerability of this ecosystem to human disturbance. The degradation of tropical peat swamps has been at the heart of climate negotiations in Paris, as emissions from fires in Indonesian peatlands over the last couple of months – exacerbated by a dry El Niño spell – approach the total annual emissions of Brazil (1.62 billion metric tons;www.wri.org).

image

Airborne laser scanning allows the detection of openings at different height cross-sections of the canopies of old-growth and selectively logged forests.

Read online: Wedeux, BMM and Coomes DA (2015) Landscape-scale changes in forest canopy structure across a partially logged tropical peat swamp, BIOGEOSCIENCES 12(22):6707–6719, DOI: 10.5194/bg-12-6707-2015.