Archive for the 'Environment' category

Know Your Biomes IX: Chaparral

Fynbos in the Western Cape, South Africa*

As much as any biome or global ecoregion is a challenge to group, differentiate or otherwise generalize, the chaparral or Mediterranean woodlands (scrubland/heathland/grassland) biome may be the best example such classification difficulties. There’s perhaps more general agreement regarding the features of this biome, even if the name tends to change from author to author. Many texts will not even include this biome in their list of major regions, instead making a small reference to it in the section regarding deserts. However, these areas, considering their combined territory, contain about 20 percent of the world’s species of plants, many of them endemic gems found nowhere else. On the flipside, due to the often environmentally heterogeneous nature of this biome, organisms that are prominent, integral members of other biome classifications are found in the chaparral as well. For the sake of consistency in this post, I’ll continue to refer to this biome as chaparral, as incomplete a descriptive designation as that may be.

Specifically, chaparral biomes exist in five major regions: South Africa, South/Southwest Australia, Southwestern California/Mexico, Central Chile and in patches wrapped around the Mediterranean Sea, including Southern Europe and Northern Africa. These regions are unified by their hot, dry summers and mild winters, referred to as an archetypal Mediterranean climate at 40 degrees north and south approximately.

The vast majority of rainfall usually comes with the cold fronts of winter. Annually, chaparral can experience anywhere from 250 mm of rain all the way up to 3000 mm in isolated subregions like the west portion of Fynbos in South Africa.

Plants in chaparral areas tend to be sclerophyllous (Greek: “hard-leaved”), meaning the leaves are evergreen, tough and waxy. This adaptation allows plants to conserve water in an area where rainfall is discontinuous, but probably evolved to compensate for the low levels of phosphorous in ancient weathered soils, particularly in Australia where there have been relatively few volcanic events to reestablish nutrients over millions of years. Obviously, these plants also happen to do very well during the xeric summers of the chaparral where drought is always a threat.

Because of the aridity and heat, the chaparral plant communities are adapted to and often strategically dependent on fire. Evolutionary succession scenarios constructed by scientists typically point to fire as one of the major factors that created much of chaparral areas in Australia and South Africa from Gondwanaland rainforest. (Fire ecology really deserves at least a post of its own, which I’d like to discuss given the time in the future.)

Some of the regions in the chaparral are exceptional. In South Africa, the area known as the Fynbos constitutes its own floristic region (phytochorion) among phytogeographers, the Cape Floristic Region. While it is the smallest of these floral kingdoms, it contains some 8500 species of vascular plants, 70 percent of which are endemic. The March rose (Oromthamnus zeyheri) is one of the standout specimens of the group as well as the national flower of South Africa, the King protea (Protea cynaroides). P. cynaroides is a “resprouter” in its fire-prone habitat, growing from embedded buds in a subterranean, burl-like structure. Another endemic species, the Cape sugarbird, is shown feeding on a King protea below**.

There is one unique threat to the chaparral: anthropogenic fire. In the past, if nature had not provided a fire to burn back the accumulated brush in these areas, often the native peoples would do so, and generally speaking, the fires seemed to be controlled and effective. But increased frequency of fires due to negligence or downed power lines can potentially cause catastrophic, unrecoverable fire. Only so much tolerance to such a destructive force can be built by evolutionary processes.

*Image by Chris Eason
**Image by Derek Keats

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The new Encyclopedia of Life: Collections

Sep 05 2011 Published by under Animals, Endangered Species, Environment, Internet, Red Panda

I have to admit, I didn't use the Encyclopedia of Life very frequently in its first incarnation. I perused for media every now and then, or doubled checked the taxonomy for a species, but it was not a touchstone for research. The relaunch, however, gives users new functionality to make the experience more organized for personal and community use.

Like any good application, the startup/front page gives you just about everything you need. The mission statement is obvious, the search field is huge and the row of images tells you exactly what your searches will bring. The main site elements are listed below along with FAQ links, newsfeed tells you this is a busy place full of lots of other people. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr; Impression made. It's all familiar, accessible.

The main piece that I've grown to love is the collections. After you've created your account and start searching around for cute pictures of red pandas, you'll notice an Add to Collection button in the top right-hand corner of the page. Clicking the button displays a popup. Follow the prompts to create a new collection.

Collections allow you to create groups of organisms in EOL. Collections can be as subjective or scientific as you wish. Red panda could be included in a collection of the "Cutest Animals Ever" or a more natural category, maybe "Mammals of China." Once it's created, you can search for and add as many inhabitants of EOL as you wish by clicking the Add to Collection button and selecting one (or more) of your collections in the list. For the Cutest Animals Ever collection, you might want to add the echidna or the wolf spider. For the Mammals of China, you might want to add that other panda, whatever its name is.

I started a collection of monotypic taxa from the red panda, the sole species in the genus Ailurus. I searched for other monotypic taxa off the top of my head: the moose, the African civet cat, the Gingko. Then I started getting some responses from the community via the collection newsfeed. Katja said, "Don't forget the Aardvark!" Cyndy said the Western Osprey was a good candidate for the collection. Bob suggested that I add a description so that people visiting my collection knew exactly what "monotypic taxa" are. So I did:

This is how communities can grow out of collections of organisms, communities based on shared interests of one sort or another. In fact, there's functionality there to support those communities, just click the Create Community button next to your collection, add a description, invite some interested parties and start sharing.

EOL gets me thinking. It started with one of my favorite animals and quickly became a taxonomic scavenger hunt. I started researching: Just how many monotypic taxa are there? Why are they important? What does the classification say about these animals and their evolutionary history? As a writer, the answers become the building blocks for an essay. Usually there's nothing manipulable about those ideas; they spawn from reading papers, from the ideas of others. EOL provides a level of control that allows systems to be constructed that plead for further explanation.

Collection building can create new ideas, but it can also be useful for supplementing existing material. I've written about biomes and ecosystems frequently in the past, and it can be difficult to give readers a good idea of the extent or uniqueness of life in a particular region. I'm thinking about using collections in EOL when I can to create lists of organisms that constitute the ecosystem I describe so that readers can browse through the many unique organisms that live there. Excessive listing and description in prose structurally tedious; often its a choice between prose lists and long strings of bullets, which are ugly and usually scary for a casual reader.

EOL suddenly becomes a very interesting resource for science enthusiasts, educators and writers. I have some thoughts about how it could be used in more creative/artistic ways, but I'll hold off for a future post.

Go sign up and play around. It's Labor Day. The grill isn't ready just yet. EOL is a lot of fun.

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Nature and the illusion of peace

Jun 09 2011 Published by under Environment

In the clearing just below my grandfather's hunting cabin, between thick rows of red and blue spruce, you have to be careful with the lawn mower. Three perfect white sitting rocks are quickly overgrown with daisies and other weeds in the spring, so it's important to fish the stones from the tangle to avoid twisting a blade. I spent an evening there, about an hour, sitting, waiting for the sun to fully set, for the sky to blacken. Eventually I lost patience and went inside. The trees remained shadows against dark blue for much of the night.

Down there though, sitting on those rocks, it's quiet. The silence is deep, broken only by the furtive movements of rodents and birds in the woods and the rise and fall of the choral of tiny frogs by the pond. Occasionally the song halts while a larger animal passes - perhaps deer or raccoon - and then resumes. I get edgy thinking it might be a bear.

These are the moments we crave with nature. I sought out the exact place for my cathartic need for the quiet mountain that evening in the same way millions of people seek out specific places to connect with nature: state parks, hiking trails, cabin rentals, on and on. When my grandfather's place was inaccessible due to distance, I found other ways to connect. If I went too long without having that selfish bit of time, I felt pensive, frustrated. E.O. Wilson cites our evolutionary heritage. I tend to agree, but it runs deep in different ways. In my case, it's partially familial. Being in the woods anywhere reminds me of happy, uncomplicated times I spent with my family.

There's something untrue about it all, however. I sit in the night and listen, hearing little, breathing deep, but under my feet billions of organisms fight for territory and resources in the tiny cracks between soil granules. The soil itself is a conglomerate of varied origin, the decayed remains of animals and plants, fragments of ancient rock from continents long dead. The weeds we hacked down just days before have begun to vigorously regenerate, to vie for a better access to sunlight. Down the road, a snake invades the den of a family of chipmunks overnight, consumes the young. The guardians of the den are dead, flattened by passing cars on the asphalt. The babies would have died of starvation anyway.

You can almost see it, hear it when you want to, the cells of every living things around, the innumerable chemical processes firing off and all of this in context temporarily strips away that peace, leaves bare a reality, if not the reality of nature. The limitations of our own senses save us from prolonged exposure, but it invades nonetheless, if you let it.

There is something disrespectfully incomplete about popular conceptions of nature, especially when the escape into these places we love is for pure beauty, pure peace. There's something I dread about reentering that world, seeing the things none of us want to see, the brutality of it: death, chemical compulsions, the needs of predators. It's a reminder of how things really are and squashes that silly daydream of somehow returning to nature and finding our "proper" place among it once more. As a species, we ran away and didn't look back until about 100 years ago or so.

It's easy to wax poetic about the parsimony of nature, the circle of life, the harmless, birds-eye view of the majesty (and other such cliches), but it's difficult to actually witness the sad little realities that form the foundations of the big, happy system. The peace that I derive from nature is always denuded, raw, contextualized; I return to the city relieved but mindful. It's never a light escape. It never should be.

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>The red squirrel and 20 more endangered UK species

Jun 29 2010 Published by under Animals, Art, Conservation, Endangered Species, Environment

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The red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is native to England and was widespread here until about 70 years ago. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the grey squirrel was introduced to various parts of the UK from North America. It has had a devastating impact, replacing the native species whenever the two come into contact and causing significant damage to forestry through its bark-stripping activities. The red squirrel is now confined to the Isle of Wight and the Poole Harbour islands, where there are no grey squirrels, and an area of northern England, mainly in Cumbria and Northumberland, into which grey squirrels are continuing to expand

The Guardian had a slideshow of 21 endangered UK species on their website yesterday, including some of the more cosmopolitan species, like bluefin tuna and the leatherback turtle that get around quite a bit. It's a special set of picutres, illustrated by Sandra Pond, who's work strikes me as very old-fashioned, drawn with the care and love (and anthropomorphism) of illustrators from another time. As I said on Twitter yesterday, it reminds me of the FWS and NPS posters my grandfather tacked to the wall of his hunting cabin in Pennsylvania. Those posters came down long ago, and I wish I had had the sense to as my parents to save them.
Beautiful work.

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>Over 700 entries submitted so far to change BP's logo

Jun 17 2010 Published by under Art, Environment, Oil Spill

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LogoMyWay is giving away $200 to the winner, and The Blog Rules has a number of submissions, some of them really great.
From the contest page:

Help Redesign BP's logo! They need a NEW Brand.
I cant tell you how frustrated and upset we are about BP and how they are handling this oil disaster. Before this eruption of oil they had 17 violations. It's obvious this could have been prevented.
This is the biggest environmental disaster we have ever faced in this country.
I think the (6000) creative logo designers at LogoMyWay should update the BP logo with a more suitable design and brand.
The design community and the general public will vote on the winner of the redesign of the NEW BP LOGO.

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>Mapping the response and recovery efforts in the gulf

Jun 16 2010 Published by under Ecology, Environment, Oil Spill

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Found this site just a little bit ago, from the same folks that created the Conservation Registry, a database of conservation projects where users can sign up and add new details and pin the location of the project on a customizable Google Map. The same concept is applied for the Gulf Oil Spill Response and Recovery site; users can add and date pins to the map for efforts/observations that are currently or have been made, and then overlay additional information such as spill forecasts, locations of nesting sites and oyster beds, NASA satellite images, the explosion itself and dozens of other contextual layers.
More from the blog:
Users can search the map for impacts and recovery projects by activity type, species and habitats. Impacts and recovery efforts can be viewed in relation to sea turtle nesting sites, manatee locations, high priority federal lands and other relevant map layers. To report an impact or observation, or contribute a new project, users create an account through a simple one-step signup which requires a name and email address.

The types of notices that can be mapped include:

Observations: Oil slicks or sheen, oiled plants and wildlife, wildlife mortality, oiled beaches. Recovery and mitigation projects: Oil contamination management, boom and barrier placement, beach clean-up, wildlife rescue. Request assistance or search for volunteer opportunities. Post project needs for volunteers, special equipment or funding. Reach out to projects that need help.

Here are a couple of examples that have already been pinned:

Power of the Mighty Mississippi used to beat back oil spill
Six diversions have been set up along the Mississippi river to divert the river water to act as a flushing system for the coast. While there are fears that the flow of freshwater will upset salinity levels along the coast, affecting fisheries and estuaries; however, these damages are considered far less than the alternative. Officials are considering adding the Bohemia Spillway, originally designed for flood control, to these efforts as well. 

Plume spotted, leaking toward Mobile
Marine scientists have discovered a massive new plume of what they believe to be oil deep beneath the Gulf of Mexico, stretching 22 miles (35 kilometers) from the leaking wellhead northeast toward Mobile Bay, Alabama. The discovery by researchers on the University of South Florida College of Marine Science's Weatherbird II vessel is the second significant undersea plume recorded since the Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20. 

UD Fish and Wildlife Services
Two rehabilitated birds that were rescued from the oil spill area are set to be released into the wild this afternoon, far from the massive oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries will release the birds in the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area in Iberville Parish.
If the site becomes prevalent enough, it should prove to be an invaluable way to keep track of what is actually happening at ground zero in this effort.

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>Gulf Oil Blog, by UGA scientist Samantha Joye & colleagues

Jun 10 2010 Published by under Ecology, Environment, Oil Spill

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Dr. Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia testified at a congressional hearing yesterday, reporting her findings after a two week trip to the Gulf. Joye's team also recorded much of what they found, journal-style on a blog called the Gulf Oil Blog, which is a great resource, obviously. She's even answering questions (most more complicated and relevant than "when will it stop").
Joye is focusing research on the plume - yes, the one that doesn't exist - and reports that the respiration rates in the plume, based on preliminary findings, are "at least 5-10 times higher" than control sites, which means more oxygen is being used up by bioremediating microorganisms in a specific area, which could potentially create a very large dead (hypoxic) zone where very little marine life will be able to live for quite a long time.
More on the plume from Joye:

At present, oxygen concentrations exceed 2 mg/L but if concentrations drop below that, it would spell problems for any oxygen requiring organisms. The Southwest Plume is, at a minimum, 15 miles long x 2 miles long and the plume is about 600 feet thick. Temperatures in the plume are about 8-12ºC. We do not know the absolute oil content at this time.
The plume is largely water. This is not thick oil like you see on the surface in some places, it’s diluted oil and it’s most concentrated closest to the leaking riser pipe. Unlike a natural oil seep, which is most intense on the bottom and whose signal decreases with depth above the seafloor, the plume we are studying starts 200m above the seafloor and its intensity decreases horizontally with distance away from the leaking wellhead.
The specific gravity of oil is irrelevant to this discussion. This is not oil like you buy at the auto supply store. Think of it as gas-saturated oil that has been shot out of a deep sea cannon under intense pressure – it’s like putting olive oil in a spray can, pressurizing it and pushing the spray button. What comes out when you push that button? A mist of olive oil. This well is leaking a mist of oil that is settling out in the deep sea.

Dr. Joye also spoke at UGA earlier this week:

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>Southeast Asia in the Pleistocene, from grassland to rain forest

Jun 09 2010 Published by under Climate, Ecology, Environment, Research Blogging

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ResearchBlogging.orgI’ve been trying to keep up with the Gulf situation, so most of my reading of late has been dominated by those details, and the unread numbers in my RSS folders were a little intimidating, but I finally found some time to read some of the papers I’ve earmarked in the past month or so.

This study from the Journal of Biogeography attempts a new method to assemble the paleoecology and paleoenvironment of Southeast Asia in the late Pleistocene and runs a lengthy comparison against the results of previous studies, corroborating the evidences. The interest in reconstructing these environments is largely generated from more recent discoveries of hominins that lived there in the Pleistocene. Data regarding hominin-mammal interactions is important and can be used to determine evolutionary nuances. If the environments in which these hominins lived can be interpreted, it can give us more details about how they lived, how they continued to disperse and even give scientists better clues as to where remains and artifacts can be found.

Conveniently, the vast amount of fossil data recovered from SE Asia is from medium to large sized mammals. The area seems to have always been rich in mammalian life; at present, 13 percent of all the species of mammals in the world live in SE Asia, which comprises just one percent of the total land mass. The community of mammals hasn’t changed very much since the Pleistocene, boasting relatively few extinctions. Great megafauna like Stegodon, and Pachycrocuta, the giant hyenas, are gone forever, but their remains and others helped the authors piece together a somewhat better look at what the Pleistocene was like so long ago.

Aside from the fossil data, certain ecological variables were established – body size, trophic group (or guild) and arboreality (whether or not the animal lived in trees) – which were used to create a series of categories for the included organisms. The established relationships were calculated using the “synecological” method, which takes such variables and categorizations and is able to calculate fossil sites as open, closed or mixed habitats. Alongside data from previous studies, the researchers were able to paint a very different picture of SE Asia in a very different time.

Instead of the thick, wet rainforest that dominates much of the area, mostly “closed habitats”, stretches of continuous tree cover, the results reveal that much of SE Asia was open or mixed habitat, areas of grassland or a more sparse, heterogeneous cover of trees. Through much of the Pleistocene, the climate was cooler and drier, insufficient precipitation for the extensive forest cover of the Miocene and of today. A site called Trinil in Java was dominated by grassland, an open habitat...

The open environment reconstructed in this analysis is confirmed by the presence of the wide-toothed species of rat (Rattus sp. A), from Trinil (van der Meulen & Musser, 1999), which was presumably a grassland species.

...while Tam Hang, in Laos, the first reconstruction for a site in that country, is most likely a mixed habitat, perhaps an open forest.

Considering studies like this one, which are already seeing entire biomes beginning to shift, it becomes useful to be able to have some impression of how climate has changed certain areas in the past. As I mentioned at the beginning, studies like these can give researchers a better idea of where exactly to look for hominin remains and artifacts by describing the sometimes very different environments they lived in.

Louys, J., & Meijaard, E. (2010). Palaeoecology of Southeast Asian megafauna-bearing sites from the Pleistocene and a review of environmental changes in the region Journal of Biogeography DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2699.2010.02297.x

Marwick, B. (2009). Biogeography of Middle Pleistocene hominins in mainland Southeast Asia: A review of current evidence Quaternary International, 202 (1-2), 51-58 DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2008.01.012

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>Climate change pushing vegetation "toward the poles and up mountain slopes"

Jun 07 2010 Published by under Climate, Ecology, Environment

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Tweeted about this article the other day, how, according to a recent meta-analysis, mean temperatures have increased on 76 percent of land from 1901 to 2002, with the highest increases occurring in boreal regions. These differences have caused vegetation to decrease in some areas and increase in others, what the authors are calling whole biome shifts, not just a few ecosystems, and as usual there is a human way of life at risk, not just an ecological system:

Some examples of biome shifts that occurred include woodlands giving way to grasslands in the African Sahel, and shrublands encroaching onto tundra in the Arctic.
"The dieback of trees and shrubs in the Sahel leaves less wood for houses and cooking, while the contraction of Arctic tundra reduces habitat for caribou and other wildlife," said Gonzalez, who has served as a lead author on reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). "Globally, vegetation shifts are disrupting ecosystems, reducing habitat for endangered species, and altering the forests that supply water and other services to many people."

Another graphic in the release depicts the most vulnerable areas to biome shifts based on IPCC data.

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>Oil spill animations just released

Jun 03 2010 Published by under Ecology, Environment, Oil Spill

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Here's a series of models from the NCAR/UCAR website in addition to a news release of how the oil could spread in the following four months.
Description of the video above:

This animation shows one scenario of how oil released at the location of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on April 20 in the Gulf of Mexico may move in the upper 65 feet of the ocean. This is not a forecast, but rather, it illustrates a likely dispersal pathway of the oil for roughly four months following the spill. It assumes oil spilling continuously from April 20 to June 20. The colors represent a dilution factor ranging from red (most concentrated) to beige (most diluted). The dilution factor does not attempt to estimate the actual barrels of oil at any spot; rather, it depicts how much of the total oil from the source that will be carried elsewhere by ocean currents. For example, areas showing a dilution factor of 0.01 would have one-hundredth the concentration of oil present at the spill site.
The animation is based on a computer model simulation, using a virtual dye, that assumes weather and current conditions similar to those that occur in a typical year. It is one of a set of six scenarios released today that simulate possible pathways the oil might take under a variety of oceanic conditions. Each of the six scenarios shows the same overall movement of oil through the Gulf to the Atlantic and up the East Coast. However, the timing and fine-scale details differ, depending on the details of the ocean currents in the Gulf. (Visualization by Tim Scheitlin and Mary Haley, NCAR; based on model simulations.)

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