Summary: Field Talk explores research results – and the stories of the ecologists behind them – from three of the Society’s journals: Ecology, Ecological Applications, and Ecological Monographs.
“It matters because we’re facing global change – these are global phenomena, so we need global information,” said Erle Ellis, a professor of geography & environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, talking about the low resolution of ecological data from many parts of the world. A review of five years of ecological field studies, published earlier this year, showed a bias toward the protected, temperate, broadleafed forests of wealthy countries, where most ecologists make their homes. Ellis talks about some of the surprising discoveries of the review, and the challenges of defining native species ranges in a time of global change. He shares concerns about framing conservation in terms of ecosystems services, and his own journey from plant physiology through agricultural field studies in rural China, to his current work in land use and global change. Mapping where ecologists work: biases in the global distribution of terrestrial ecological observations. Laura J Martin, Bernd Blossey, and Erle Ellis. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2012 10:4, 195-201. Image taken from Figure 1 of Martin et al.: The percentage of global ice-free terrestrial area in each anthrome category (left) as compared with the percentage of ecological sites (n = 2573) situated in each anthrome category (right). In the key, “other” refers to sites that were not densely settled or agriculture/rangeland but that did not contain adequate information to assign a protected status. Estimate of protected sites is therefore conservative. Learn more about this project on ESA’s blog, EcoTone.
Kansas native Jesse Nippert loves the prairie. He spends much of his time immersed in the tall grass as an assistant professor at Kansas State University. Though agriculture has vastly changed the plains of North America, pockets of tall grass remain on rangeland and preserves. But the remaining tallgrass prairie, like grasslands all over the world, is changing as well, becoming, in many places, scrubland. The change is a problem for ranchers and an absorbing mystery for grassland ecologists. Jesse explains indications of positive feedbacks promoting the creeping spread of woody shrubs into the tallgrass prairie, from his paper in the November edition of Ecosphere, ESA’s new online-only, open-access journal. Learn more about tallgrass prairie in the accompanying post on ESA’s blog, Ecotone.
There is a world within the canopy of a tropical cloud forest that not many people get to see. In this unique ecosystem – maintained by the exceptionally wet microclimate of cloud cover—orchids, moss, lichens and other epiphytes grow in every crease and pocket of the supporting tree branches. Here, hundreds of species of birds, monkeys and other mammal pollinators navigate the aerial landscape, scattering seeds along the way (see below video). Greg Goldsmith, tropical plant ecologist from the University of California, Berkeley, spends his days harnessed in this “canopy in the clouds”—the name of the interactive, educational website he is currently working on with photographer Drew Fulton and cinematographer Colin Witherill. Read more in the EcoTone post. Photo Credit: Drew Fulton
Some projects implement photography as a means for exploring societal and environmental issues. One such project is gigapan.org, which allows users to share and discuss panoramic photographs (one of the most famous gigapans is of the 2009 Inauguration of President Barack Obama). Ecologist and photographer Molly Mehling uses gigapan to capture research and encourage conversation and collaboration about science, nature and sustainability. In a recent interview for EcoTone, Mehling discussed opportunities for incorporating photography into research and the ways in which images can convey messages about science and nature. Photography can put viewers at the foot of a receding glacier or face-to-face with a humpback whale.
Spearfishers in Chile In theory, the evolution of scuba gear and wetsuits in spearfishing allow divers to produce a more abundant catch. However, Natalio Godoy from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and colleagues found that the spearfishers’ catches are becoming less diverse and abundant in the temperate reefs in northern and central Chile. The result, as they suggest in a recent study published in Ecological Applications, is likely due in part to the spearfishing activities themselves. Godoy and colleagues used several methods to obtain information on the state of reef fish communities in Chile since records of spearfishing activities, and landing records specific to certain regions, are not required by the government. Therefore, the researchers examined data from nation-wide official landing records, the catch from the top 20 divers in the 1971 and 2004 world spearfishing championships and the perceptions of local spearfishers. They found that the average mass of reef fish captured decreased, the percentage of discarded fish decreased and the total number of species caught decreased drastically in the 30 year span between championships. The interviews, on the other hand, contributed an even greater understanding of the status of the fisheries: Divers reported that they were catching, and local markets were accepting, species of fish that were not consumed just 10-15 years ago.
Many science communicators suggest that the key to effectively translating climate change research is to keep the message concise, accurate and interesting, all in one tight package. Perhaps the most streamlined of platforms to communicate this science is a comic strip in which the cartoonist has just a few panels to neatly and accurately convey the findings, the alternative viewpoint and the gravity of the issue at hand. Oh, and it should be funny too. That is a tall order for even the best of communicators, but if it is pulled off, it is arguably the most dynamic and effective platform for engaging people in environmental issues. Neil Wagner, illustrator and writer of the blog and comic strip “What On Earth?” on NPR’s Science Friday program, uses humor to tackle the issue of global climate change and other environmental challenges, such as the effect of invasive species on the coffee industry. He discusses the challenges and pleasures of communicating climate change through his comic strip in a recent interview for EcoTone.
Jason Tylianakis Loss of canopy cover in rainforests—compared to the other fragmented habitats in Manabi in southwest Ecuador—leads to a region-wide loss of diversity in species interactions, said researchers from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. As Jason Tilianakis and Etienne Laliberté reported in the June issue of Ecology, the food webs and interactions between parasitoids and their bee and wasp hosts were simplified and homogenized across habitats. As it turns out, land use was not the major contributor to this loss of interaction diversity: The researchers proposed that the lack of canopy cover in the managed and abandoned coffee agroforests and pasture and rice fields allowed for easier access as parasitoids searched for their bee and wasp hosts. In this edition of Field Talk, Jason Tylianakis discusses his findings, the fragmented habitats of Ecuador and the Homogecene era.
Vertebrate fertilizer is not the only source of nutrients in the soils of East African savannahs, at least according to a study recently published in the journal Ecology. Alison Brody from the University of Vermont and colleagues found that termites actually had more of an effect on the fruiting success of Acacia trees in Kenya than did dung and urine deposition from ungulate herbivores, such as zebras and gazelles. The underground termite mounds, covered in vegetation and ranging from 5-10 meters in size, increased nitrogen and other nutrients in the soil—significantly more so than ungulates typically provided. In this edition of Field Talk, Brody talks about the symbiotic relationships these Acacia trees have with vertebrates and invertebrates, her plans for future research on the effects of cattle grazing on this land and her experiences in the field with the Kenya Long-term Exclosure Experiment.
What is it about the rocky habitat in California that makes giant kelp so prevalent? And how do they spread from one section of the Santa Barbara Channel to another? According to Filipe Alberto, a marine population geneticist at the Centre for Marine Sciences in Portugal, giant kelp spread from one area to another in a stepping stone fashion, changing their genetic make-up as they go along. In his study, published in the January issue of Ecology, Filipe and colleagues analyzed the effects of isolation on genetic diversity between kelp forests. Diving with researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Filipe collected all the samples he needed to study their genetic diversity—and he did it in just two weeks at the coastal Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site in Conception, California. The samples, which were then shipped back to Portugal, showed that habitat continuity plays an important role in genetic connectivity.
All around the world, the subtle—and not-so-subtle—impacts of climate change are becoming apparent. In the Arctic, where temperatures are warming at about twice the rate of lower latitudes, researchers are discovering marked changes in the landscape. In this month’s Field Talk, we take a trip to the High Arctic with James Hudson, whose paper in the October issue of Ecology looks at a tundra community on Canada’s Ellesmere Island. Hudson and his colleagues found that changes in temperature and seasonality are causing the normally low-lying shrubs in this area to grow to nearly twice their usual weight. Given the importance of the Arctic to global nutrient cycling, these types of studies can provide a road map to identifying areas of likely change.