new paper

Would elephants really replace the woolly mammoth?

Rewilding involves restoring nature at large scales, typically by reintroducing species that have gone extinct and have had important interactions with other organisms.  It has received a lot of popular attention lately, helped in part by George Mobiot’s 2013 book Feral and its growing number of success stories.  But the idea of rewilding remains highly controversial, particularly when it involves adding apex predators like wolves into places with people.  One the reasons for the controversy is the lack of empirical data to assess the effectiveness of its outcomes.  Conservationists are often relying on a handful of well-known examples, such as from Yellowstone National Park.

rewildcoverIn a new paper published last week in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, we now summarise the numerical data around whether rewilding works and identify the biases in experimental study.

The paper is part of a special issue on rewilding, organised by Elisabeth Bakker and Jens-Christian Svenning, to which we were kindly asked to contribute towards.  And we were even interviewed in last week’s issue of Science about the special issue and importance of trophic rewilding for the important task of keeping the Arctic cool.

 

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Digging into lake microbiomes

Two new papers have just been published from our RELATED project.  The work shows how future changes in forest cover around lakes will influence the contributions of inland waters to global carbon cycles.

The first paper published in ISME finds that the positive effects of microbial diversity on CO2 production depends on present and past environmental gradients.  Using a space-for-time substitution for forest greening, the study also finds that a doubling in the tree cover around lakes can increase CO2 production by five-times.  More broadly, the work highlights how widely reported biodiversity-ecosystem functioning relationships need to be contextualised with other ecosystem properties.

A second paper published in Global Change Biology sheds light on the mechanisms underpinning the decomposition of terrestrial organic matter in lake sediments.  Using the RELATED experimental platform, the study finds that identical organic matter additions to sediments have contrasting outcomes for carbon cycling depending on lake-specific characteristics.  In lakes with clear waters, future increases in terrestrial organic matter inputs can stimulate CO2 production because of photo-oxidation.  By contrast, bacteria in darker waters may possess functional genes for degrading organic matter, thereby priming their productivity.  I’m particularly proud of the teamwork on this one, which involved almost the entire group!

Farting lakes warm the world

Lakes release gas too.  In the latest paper freely available from our RELATED project, we show that the vegetation in and around lakes can play an important role in influencing how much of the potent greenhouse gas methane is produced by microbes.  The story, led by our former postdoc Erik Emilson, has been covered by BBC News.

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How we can protect biodiversity outside of parks?

Protected areas deliver enormous benefits inside of their boundaries, but what is their contribution to the biodiversity of broader landscapes?  This is a really important question to answer because there are limits to how much land conservation can meaningfully protect.  Moreover, the 196 governments parties that have signed onto the Convention on Biological Diversity are aiming to protect 17% of the world’s land surface by 2020, but what about the other 83%?  Conservation outside of protected areas is critical to ensure that the spaces between parks aren’t devoid of life.

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How do we get species from one side of the fence to the other?

In a new study, we provide among the first empirical evidence that protected areas may disperse biodiversity and ecosystem services into surrounding landscapes. Continue reading

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!

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.

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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).

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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.

The future of environmentally-friendly farming?

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.

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Explaining the origins of species diversity

The July 2015 issue of New Phytologist has come out and its a doozy!  The entire issue features work on evolutionary plant radiations, drawing together a range of papers that summarize the current state of knowledge about “where, when, why, and how” plant radiations happened.  An editorial by Colin Hughes, Reto Nyffeler Peter Linder outlines the content of what will surely be a landmark issue for years to come!

Many, if not all, of these papers were presented at a symposium organized in Zurich that we attended with our New Zealand collaborators Professors Bill and Daphne Lee in June 2014:

We're somewhere in the crowd

We’re somewhere in the crowd …

For me, this was possibly one of the most intellectually stimulating meetings that I’ve ever attended.  Talks drew major figures in plant ecology, evolution, and systematics and really pushed the boundaries out on ‘diversification’ research.  The field itself is still arguably quite new, with many of the key questions synthesized in a 2008 paper by Peter Linder.  In fact, we have a PhD studentship available to follow-up some of these questions and build on what we talked about at the meeting.

You might have noticed that we even have a contribution in the New Phytologist Special Issue.  Our paper tests the mechanisms by which plant evolutionary radiations emerge and influence ecological dynamics.  We apply more of our expertise in structural equation modelling to focus on 16 species-rich genera in the alpine zone of New Zealand.

Diversity in New Zealand’s alpine.  Celmisia, Chionochloa, Dracophyllum, and Veronica all appear in this photo.

One of the most exciting aspects of our paper is that we’ve tried to reconstruct the niche space that each genus has occupied over the last 20 million years.  This is fairly ambitious and has involved tasks like reconstructing sea surface temperatures through the Cenozoic from isotopic measurements of foraminifera deposited in marine sediment cores, and then using these to estimate past land temperatures.  We’ve also had to consider that the alpine zone has grown immensely over time with uplift of the Southern Alps.  To do so, we collated radiometric dates of rocks and tried to infer their rate of uplift since the Miocene.

Overall, our results suggest that genera that colonized New Zealand earlier encountered more ‘vacant’ environmental space, which promoted species diversification and further occupancy of the environment.  Genera that occupied more environmental space were subsequently more dominant in present-day vegetation plots.  The key message is that time not only explains why diversity arises, but how this diversity influences ecological dynamics.  The Special Issue has many other fabulous papers, so do check it out!