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!
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!
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.
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”.
Terrestrial lake eco-loop. Copyright: ESA.
Kurt Yakimovich, our ‘man in Canada’, recently produced this great video on his MSc research that runs in collaboration with our group. Check it out below:
We recently caught up with local TV about our paper on farming subsidies. They’ve also done a great job getting some thoughts from a local farmer. You can check out the clip below:
Our work on the agri-environment was recently featured on BBC’s very popular Countryfile programme. Matt Baker gave us quite big shoes to fill! You can check out the clip below:
Our first paper on the agri-environment has just appeared in this month’s issue of PLoS Biology. This is an important piece for us as it provides a foundation for empirical work being carried out by several group members.
The paper essentially makes three main points. The first is that we spend a lot more money subsidizing farming than trying to mitigate its environmental impacts. We’ve tried to plot this out below. What you can clearly see is that the purple (mitigation expenditure) is nearly invisible relative to what is spent on subsidizing farming (shown in the orange slices).
Financial support to farmers from taxpayers and consumers associated with agricultural policies as a proportion of the total value of agricultural production (VoP) at the farm gate.
The figure now provides what is essentially a map of the ‘perversity‘ of agricultural subsidies – showing where we spend money to do things that are often bad for the environment and costly to the economy. A first step in reducing conflict between agriculture and the natural environment would be to do away with the subsidies in orange.