Invasive Species vs. The Global Economy

As humans have spread across the globe, other species have followed. The domestication of animals and the advent of agriculture helped speed up this process, but species have been traveling around with humans long before that. Presently, our ability to move species from one corner of the globe to another is unprecedented. As more countries join the global economy, the risk of outsider species establishing themselves in uncharted territory increases. Species introductions via globalization are not likely to decrease, and so the question must be asked: Are we, as a global community, equipped to address this?

A review published in Nature Communications in August 2016 warns that “most countries have limited capacity to act against invasions.” The authors come to this conclusion after analyzing available data about invasive species across the globe and developing a “global, spatial forecast for emerging invasions throughout the twenty-first century.” National responses to invasive species were assessed based on reports to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

As part of the 2011-2020 CBD Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, nations or states that are parties of the CBD agreed to work towards a series of goals called Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Target 9 addresses invasive species: “By 2020, invasive alien species and pathways are identified and prioritized, priority species are controlled or eradicated and measures are in place to manage pathways to prevent their introduction and establishment.” The authors of the review found that, while most countries have made progress on identifying and prioritizing some of the most prominent and threatening invasive species, “current management practices only target a handful” and “prevention of introduction and establishment lags far behind progress towards the reactive CBD goals.”

Biological invasions are expected to remain high across the globe; however, regions with a high Human Development Index (HDI) face different threats compared to regions with a low HDI. Due to increasing levels of international trade, high-HDI regions will continue to be threatened by introductions via pet and plant imports. Climate change and the coinciding biome shifts and changes in fire frequency are expected to aid in the establishment and perpetuation of invasive species in these regions.

Low-HDI regions have historically been less threatened by invasive species compared to high-HDI regions. As these regions join the global economy, they risk experiencing a much higher level of species introductions. Many of the planet’s biodiversity hotspots are found in low-HDI regions, making these hotspots more vulnerable to invasions as the potential for introductions increases. The authors found that the threat of introductions is at its highest in regions where “high levels of passenger air travel overlap with agriculture conversion.” Low-HDI regions are more limited in their capacity to respond to invasions compared to high-HDI regions and are more vulnerable to food shortages when invasive species disrupt agriculture.

“High risk in low-HDI countries could arise from coincidence between intensifying agriculture sectors and high levels of passenger air travel that is likely to transport arthropod pests. … Low-HDI countries could prioritize screening of passenger baggage for live plants, fruits or vegetables, which could host crop pests and pathogens.” – Early, et al. (2016) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

The authors state: “The intensities and global patterns of introduction and disturbance are changing more rapidly today than at any time during human history.” Introductions are not projected to slow in high-HDI regions, and low-HDI regions will be increasingly threatened as species already well established in high-HDI regions expand their reach. This is grim news, but it also presents an opportunity. Through cooperation and data sharing, our understanding of invasive species can greatly increase, and regions with greater access to resources can share such things with less fortunate regions. This is the hope of the authors as well: “We urge increased exchange of information and skills between regions with a wealth of invasive alien species experts and low-HDI countries that have less expertise.”

For more information about this review, go here. For more information about global trade in the modern era, check out the new podcast Containers.

Biodiversity Dips When Japanese Rice Paddies Go Fallow

Large-scale farms that generally grow a single crop at a time and are managed conventionally are, by design, lacking in biodiversity. Abandoning such farms and allowing nature to take its course should, not surprisingly, result in a dramatic uptick in biodiversity. Plant colonization of abandoned farmland (also referred to as old field succession) is well studied and is regularly used as an example of secondary succession in ecology textbooks. The scenario seems obvious: cease agriculture operations, relinquish the land back to nature, and given enough time it will be transformed into a thriving natural community replete with diverse forms of plants and animals. This is an oversimplification, of course, and results will vary with each abandoned piece of land depending on the circumstances, but it generally seems to be the story. So what about when it isn’t?

Rice farming in Japan began at least 2400 years ago. Rice had been domesticated in China long before that, and when it eventually arrived in Japan it shaped the culture dramatically. For hundreds of years rice was farmed in small, terraced paddies in the mountains of Japan. Dennis Normile writes about these traditional, rice paddies in a recent issue of Science. He describes how they were found in villages “nestled in a forested valley” accompanied by vegetable plots, orchards, and pasture. Today, farms like these are “endangered,” and as they have become increasingly abandoned, plants, insects, and other wildlife that have historically thrived there are suffering.

Since the 1960’s, a combination of factors has resulted in the decline of traditional rice farming in Japan. For one, large scale farming has led to the consolidation of paddies, which are farmed more intensively. Diets in Japan have also shifted, resulting in a preference for bread and pasta over rice. Additionally, Japan’s population is shrinking, and residents of rural areas are migrating to cities. Traditional rice farmers are aging, and younger generations are showing little interest in pursuing this career.

Red rice paddy in Japan - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Red rice paddy in Japan – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Demographic and dietary concerns aside, why in this case is the abandonment of agriculture imperiling species? The answer appears to be in both the way that the rice paddies have been historically managed and the length of time that they have been managed that way. Agriculture, by its very nature, creates novel ecosystems, and if the practice continues long enough, surrounding flora and fauna could theoretically coevolve along with the practice. When the practice is discontinued, species that have come to rely on it become threatened.

Traditional rice paddies are, as Normile describes, “rimmed by banks so that they can be flooded and drained.” Farmers “encouraged wild grassland plants to grow on the banks because the roots stabilize the soil.” The banks are mowed at least twice a year, which helps keep woody shrubs and trees from establishing on the banks. In some areas, rice farming began where primitive people of Japan were burning frequently to encourage grassland habitat. Maintaining grassland species around rice paddies perpetuated the grassland habitat engineered by primitive cultures.

As rice paddies are abandoned and the surrounding grasslands are no longer maintained, invasive species like kudzu and a North American species of goldenrod have been moving in and dominating the landscape resulting in the decline of native plants and insects. Normile reports that the abandoned grasslands are not expected to return to native forests either since “surrounding forests…are a shadow of their old selves.”

Additionally, like most other parts of the world, Japan has lost much of its natural wetland habitat to development. Rice paddies provide habitat for wetland bird species. On paddies that have been abandoned or consolidated, researchers are finding fewer wetland bird species compared to paddies that are managed traditionally.

The gray-faced buzzard (Butastur indicus) is listed as vulnerable in Japan. It nests in forests and preys on insects, frogs, and other animals found in grasslands and rice paddies. It's decline has been linked to the abandonment and development of traditionally farmed rice paddies. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The gray-faced buzzard (Butastur indicus) is listed as vulnerable in Japan. It nests in forests and preys on insects, frogs, and other animals found in grasslands and rice paddies. Its decline has been linked to the abandonment and development of traditionally farmed rice paddies. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

All of this adds fodder to an ongoing debate: “whether allowing farmland to revert to nature is a boon to biodiversity or actually harms it.” Where agriculture is a relatively new practice or where conventional practices dominate, abandoning agriculture would be expected to preserve and promote biodiversity. However, where certain agricultural practices have persisted for millenia, abandoning agriculture or converting  to modern day practices could result in endangerment and even extinction of some species. In the latter case, “rewilding” would require thoughtful consideration.

The thing that fascinates me the most about this report is just how intertwined humans are in the ecology of this planet. In many ways humans have done great harm to our environment and to the myriad other species that share it. We are a force to be reckoned with. Yet, the popular view that we are separate, above, apart, or even dominant over nature is an absurd one. For someone who cares deeply about the environment, this view has too often been accompanied by a sort of self-flagellation, cursing myself and my species for what we have done and continue to do to our home planet. Stories like this, however, offer an alternative perspective.

Humans are components of the natural world. We evolved just like every other living thing here, and so our actions as well as the actions of other species have helped shape the way the world looks. If our species had met its demise early in its evolutionary trajectory, the world would look very different. But we persisted, and as it turns out, despite the destruction we have caused and the species we have eliminated, we have simultaneously played a role in the evolution and persistence of many other species as well. We must learn to tread lightly – for the sake of our own species as well as others – but we should also quit considering ourselves “other than” nature, and we should stop beating ourselves up for our collective “mistakes.” It seems that when we come to recognize how connected we are to nature we will have greater motivation to protect it.

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Book Review: Bringing Nature Home

Since Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy was first published in 2007, it has quickly become somewhat of a “classic” to proponents of native plant gardening. As such a proponent, I figured I ought to put in my two cents. Full disclosure: this is less of a review and more of an outright endorsement. I’m fawning, really, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

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The subtitle pretty much sums it up: “How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.” Ninety three pages into the book, Tallamy elaborates further: “By favoring native plants over aliens in the suburban landscape, gardeners can do much to sustain the biodiversity that has been one of this country’s richest assets.” And one of every country’s richest assets, as far as I’m concerned. “But isn’t that why we have nature preserves?” one might ask. “We can no longer rely on natural areas alone to provide food and shelter for biodiversity,” Tallamy asserts in the Q & A portion of his book. Humans have altered every landscape – urban, suburban, rural, and beyond – leaving species of all kinds threatened everywhere. This means that efforts to protect biodiversity must occur everywhere. This is where the You comes in. Each one of us can play a part, no matter how small. In closing, Tallamy claims, “We can each make a difference almost immediately by planting a native nearby.”

A plant is considered native to an area if it shares a historical evolutionary relationship with the other organisms in that area. This evolutionary relationship is important because the interactions among organisms that developed over thousands, even millions, of years are what define a natural community. Thus, as Tallamy argues, “a plant can only function as a true ‘native’ while it is interacting with the community that historically helped shape it.” A garden designed to benefit wildlife and preserve biodiversity is most effective when it includes a high percentage of native plants because other species native to the area are already adapted to using them.

Plants (and algae) are at the base of every food chain – the first trophic level – because they produce their own food using the sun’s energy. Organisms that are primarily herbivores are at the second trophic level, organisms that primarily consume herbivores are at the third trophic level, and so on. As plants have evolved they have developed numerous defenses to keep from being eaten. Herbivores that evolved along with those plants have evolved the ability to overcome those defenses. This is important because if herbivores can’t eat the plants then they can’t survive, and if they don’t survive then there will be little food for organisms at higher trophic levels.

The most important herbivores are insects simply because they are so abundant and diverse and, thus, are a major food source for species at higher trophic levels. The problem is that, as Tallamy learned, “most insect herbivores can only eat plants with which they share an evolutionary history.” Insects are specialized as to which plants they can eat because they have adapted ways to overcome the defenses that said plants have developed to keep things from eating them. Healthy, abundant, and diverse insect populations support biodiversity at higher trophic levels, but such insect populations won’t exist without a diverse community of native plants with which the insects share an evolutionary history.

That is essentially the thesis of Tallamy’s book. In a chapter entitled “Why Can’t Insects Eat Alien Plants?” Tallamy expounds on the specialized relationships between plants and insects that have developed over millennia. Plants introduced from other areas have not formed such relationships and are thus used to a much lesser degree than their native counterparts. Research concerning this topic was scarce at the time this book was published, but among other studies, Tallamy cites preliminary data from a study he carried out on his property. The study compared the insect herbivore biomass and diversity found on four common native plants vs. five common invasive plants. The native plants produced 4 times more herbivore biomass and supported 3.2 times as many herbivore species compared to the invasive plants. He also determined that the insects using the alien plants were generalists, and when he eliminated specialists from the study he still found that natives supported twice as much generalist biomass.

Apart from native plants and insects, Tallamy frames much of his argument around birds. Birds have been greatly impacted by humans. Their populations are shrinking at an alarming rate, and many species are threatened with extinction. Tallamy asserts, “We know most about the effects of habitat loss from studies of birds.” We have destroyed their homes and taken away their food and “filled their world with dangerous obstacles.” Efforts to improve habitat for birds will simultaneously improve habitat for other organisms. Most bird species rely on insects during reproduction in order to feed themselves and their young. Reducing insect populations by filling our landscapes largely with alien plant species threatens the survival of many bird species.

In the chapters “What Should I Plant?” and “What Does Bird Food Look Like?,” Tallamy first profiles 20 groups of native trees and shrubs that excel at supporting populations of native arthropods and then describes a whole host of arthropods and arthropod predators that birds love to eat. Tallamy’s fascinating descriptions of the insects, their life cycles, and their behaviors alone make this book worth reading. Other chapters that are well worth a look are “Who Cares about Biodiversity?” in which Tallamy explains why biodiversity is so essential for life on Earth, and “The Cost of Using Alien Ornamentals” in which Tallamy outlines a number of ways that our obsession with exotic plants has caused problems for us and for natural areas.

Pupa of ladybird beetle on white oak leaf (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Pupa of a ladybird beetle on a white oak leaf. “The value of oaks for supporting both vertebrate and invertebrate wildlife cannot be overstated.” – Doug Tallamy (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Convincing people to switch to using native plants isn’t always easy, especially if your argument involves providing habitat for larger and more diverse populations of insects. For those who are not fans of insects, Tallamy explains that “a mere 1%” of the 4 million insect species on Earth “interact with humans in negative ways.” The majority are not pests. It is also important to understand that even humans “need healthy insect populations to ensure our own survival.” Tallamy also offers some suggestions on how to design and manage an appealing garden using native plants. A more recent book Tallamy co-authored with fellow native plant gardening advocate Rick Darke called The Living Landscape expands on this theme, although neither book claims to be a how to guide.

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Exploring Pollination Biology in Southwestern China

This is the sixth in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

Insect Pollination and Self-Incompatibility in Edible and/or Medicinal Crops in Southwestern China, a Global Hotspot of Diversity by Zong-Xin Ren, Hong Wang, Peter Bernhardt, and De-Zhu Li

We rely on pollinators to pollinate at least 75% of our food crops, which is why any talk of pollinator decline tends to make us nervous. It is also why research involving pollinators and pollination is so important. Despite all we know, there is still so much to learn. The authors of this study, recognizing that “there are large gaps in the study of the pollination of economically important and traditionally grown species in China,” set out to help close these gaps. Their research not only has the potential to benefit agricultural communities in China, but also adds to our growing understanding of pollination biology – a science that has become increasingly important in an age of human population growth and shifting climates.

The incredibly diverse Chinese flora includes at least 31,000 plant species. Three hundred of the 1500 species of worldwide cultivated crop plants “originated and/or were domesticated and/or underwent differentiation in China.” Southwestern China has a particularly large amount of botanical diversity and is considered a biodiversity hotspot. In this study concerning agricultural pollination, researchers chose to focus on Yunnan, a province in southwestern China. They chose this region due to its high level of current and historical agriculture and because it is “one of the last refuges of the eastern Asian honeybee, Apis cerana, in China.” They narrowed their research down to 11 species that are important for their culinary and/or medicinal use, some of them having widespread use and others having more local, cultural use. Depending on the species, conclusions were drawn either from available literature, from field studies, or both.

Eastern Asian Honeybee (Apis cerana) on Citrus limonia flowers (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Eastern Asian Honeybee (Apis cerana) on Citrus limonia flowers (photo credit: www.eol.org)

A review of the literature revealed information about each plant’s breeding system, the pollinators involved, ethnobotanical details, and other things. No information was available on the breeding system or pollinators of Panax notoginseng, “one of the most highly valued Chinese medicinal herbs.” Five species were found to be self-compatible (Angelica sinensis, Amomum tsao-ko, Brassica napus, B. campestris, and Gastrodia elata) and four were found to be self-incompatible (Camellia oleifera, Dendrobium catenatum, Fagopyrum esculentum, and Paris plyphylla var. yunnanensis). Codonopsis subglobosa was somewhere in the middle. The authors were intrigued by the persistent self-incompatibility in these domesticated plants (some more recently domesticated than others), noting that “both traditional and modern agricultural practices in China could not always overcome ancestral self-incompatibility mechanisms.” A running theme seemed to be that, if able to produce fruit or seed when hand-pollinated or without the aid of pollinators, the plants consistently performed better when insect pollinated. One of the most interesting findings was that Gastrodia elata, Dendrobium catenatum, and Paris plyphylla var. yunnanensis “persist in cultivation only through hand-pollination.”

Camellia oleifera, tea-oil plant, is pollinated by two native solitary bee species. It is avoided by native and introduced honeybees because its nectar contains substances that are toxic to worker bees, including caffeine, raffinose, stachyose, and galactose. Fagopyrum esculentum, common buchwheat, is native to southern China and was likely first domesticated there. It is pollinated by a variety of insects; however, its main pollinator in worldwide cultivation is the European honeybee, Apis mellifera. In China, evidence suggests that when pollinated by native pollinators, buckwheat produces higher yields and larger fruits. Codonopsis subglobosa is an undomesticated but cultivated perennial vine endemic to southwestern China, the roots of which are used as a substitute for ginseng. It can self-pollinate without a vector, but cross-pollination by wasps yields more seeds. Pollination by “hunting wasps” is rare, and C. subglobosa is not the only plant in the area pollinated by them. If the “evolution of hunting wasp pollination systems has evolved repeatedly in unrelated species native to southwestern China,” this region may be a “center for the convergent evolution of hunting wasp pollination.”

Common Buckwheat, Fagopyrum esculentum (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

Common Buckwheat, Fagopyrum esculentum (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Beekeeping has been a major part of agriculture in China for centuries. However, the introduction of the European honeybee has caused a significant decline in both wild and managed populations of native honeybees, despite native honeybees being “better adapted to more diffuse nectar resources” than the introduced honeybee. The decline in keeping and managing native honeybees is complicated and involves much more than just the introduction of the European honeybee. Along with the debate about what is best for agriculture in China, is the concern about what introducing non-native pollinators could mean for native flora and fauna. The authors conclude that there is “urgent need for new pollination management policies in China.”

This article ends with suggestions about how to improve and expand pollination biology research in China in order to fill gaps in knowledge, improve agricultural production, and protect and conserve native biodiversity. China is an ideal candidate for such research for several reasons: it has areas like southwestern China that are very species rich, it has a long history of agriculture, and it has numerous unique crops that are specific to Chinese culture. China also has a large and growing population, so improvements that can lead to more sustainable agricultural production will be greatly beneficial in the long run.

Palm Oil Production and Its Threat to Biodiversity

Improvements in cultivated varieties of oil palms could have devastating ecological effects. This is according to an article published in a recent issue of Science. Doom doesn’t have to be the story though, if – as the authors suggest – governments and conservation organizations take proper action to safeguard vulnerable land.

Palm oil is a versatile vegetable oil derived from the fruits of oil palms. It has myriad culinary uses and is also used in the manufacturing of cosmetics and the production of biofuel. Oil palms have high yields, easily outyielding other major oil crops like soybean, rapeseed, and sunflower. Oil palms are grown in the tropics in developing countries where land and labor are inexpensive. As human population grows, demand for palm oil increases. To meet the demand, tropical forests are converted into agricultural land. The majority of palm oil production occurs in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. However, palm oil production is expected to increase in African and Latin American countries as new varieties better suited for these particular environments become available.

oil world graph

Genome sequencing of oil palm may allow plant breeders to develop varieties that are disease resistant, drought tolerant, and able to grow in salinized soils. Already making its debut, though, is a new variety of oil palm that is boasting yields from 4 tons to as much as 10 tons per hectare. Higher yielding varieties could be the solution to preventing more tropical forests from being converted into oil palm plantations. Or could they lead to more growth? Intrigued by the development of improved varieties of oil palms and other tropical crops, the authors of this study developed computer models in order to determine what this might mean for the future.

African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis) is the species of oil palm most commonly grown for palm oil production.

African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis) is the species of oil palm most commonly grown in palm oil production (photo credit: www.eol.org)

The results of simulations suggested two possible outcomes: one potentially positive and the other largely negative. On the positive side, “an assumed 56% increase in oil palm yield per tree in Malaysia and Indonesia” could result in ” around 400,000 hectares of agricultural land…taken out of production in Brazil, India, and Canada.” This is because less land will be needed to meet the demand, and the increased availability and resulting lower price of palm oil will outcompete other oil crops (like rapeseed, which is one of Canada’s main agricultural crops). However, the author’s seem to assume that agricultural land taken out of production will be restored back into natural lands. I find this argument hard to accept. Anecdotal evidence suggests that if farmers are no longer making a profit from a particular crop, they will choose to either grow something more profitable or sell their land to developers. A concerted effort would have to be made to capture this land and ensure that it remain uncultivated and undeveloped. Also, as the author’s point out, restoring land in Canada is very different from restoring or protecting tropical land. Loss of biodiversity is a much greater risk in areas where the level of biodiversity per hectare is high.

On the negative side, higher yields can encourage increased production. Tropical forest conversion may accelerate if farmers see an opportunity for growth. Additionally, improved varieties may increase palm oil production in African and Latin American countries, resulting again in more land conversion and deforestation. This effect may also become the story, not just for oil palms, but for cacao, eucalyptus, coffee, and other tropical crops as varietal improvements are achieved.

Oil Palm Friuits (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Oil Palm Friuits (photo credit: www.eol.org)

In light of this predicted consequence, the authors of this study recommend that governments, working together with conservation organizations and industry associations, regulate the conversion of agricultural lands and ensure that certain areas are specifically set aside for conservation. This means that “models of the drivers of environmental change” must be developed that “incorporate feedbacks at a range of scales” so that measures can be put into place to address “the unintended negative consequences of technical advances.”

More information on sustainable palm oil production can be found here.

Article: The Wildest Idea on Earth

Imagine living in close proximity to numerous national parks and being “enveloped by connected [wildlife] corridors” that lead to these national parks – or as Edward O. Wilson envisions them, “national biodiversity parks, a new kind of park that won’t let species vanish.” Wilson – a renowned biologist, entomologist, conservationist and Pulitzer Prize winning author – has this vision and believes that it can be accomplished within the next 50 years. Not only can it be accomplished, but it must be in order to thwart the ongoing sixth mass extinction event. To be precise, half the planet must be set aside, restored to its natural state, and protected in perpetuity. A series of large parks connected by continuous corridors – or “Long Landscapes” – is the way Wilson and other conservationists insist this must be done. Tony Hiss explores the “Half Earth” concept in a feature article in the current issue of Smithsonian entitled, The Wildest Idea on Earth (the online version is entitled, Can the World Really Set Aside Half of the Planet for Wildlife?).

Hiss, accompanied by Wilson, visits three locations in North America where this vision is playing out. Their first stop is Nokuse Plantation in the Florida panhandle, where businessman, M.C. Davis, has purchased tens of thousands of acres with the intention of restoring them to native longleaf pine forests, a plant community that has been reduced by 97% due to human activity. Intact longleaf pine forests are incredibly diverse – as many as 60 different species of living things can be found in one square yard – so protecting and restoring them is an ecological imperative.

Longleaf Pine, Pinus palustris (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Longleaf Pine – Pinus palustris (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Later, Davis flies Hiss and Wilson to New England in his private jet. There Hiss discovers a seemingly accidental series of connected natural and restored landscapes nearly 200 miles in length. This corridor, and the land that surrounds it, highlights the need for private land owners to be on board with the Half Earth vision, setting aside their land for conservation in exchange for tax breaks and other incentives.

The importance of private land owners cooperating with this vision comes into play again when Hiss visits the Flying D Ranch near Bozeman, Montana. This 113,613 acre ranch (just a small fraction of the land owned by Ted Turner) is a private ranch that “promote[s] ecological integrity” – it is a wildlife refuge that also turns a profit. Fortunately, the “D” sits within larger wildlife corridor projects – Yellowstone to Yukon and Western Wildway Network highlighting Wilson’s vision of current sanctuaries being incorporated into larger networks of protected lands.

Hiss notes that as these three projects grow and connect to “the great, unbroken forests across all of northern Canada,” North America will become enclosed in “Long Landscapes” with “additional and more inland routes to be added later.” The sooner these corridors and parks are developed the better, because as global climate changes, species will need to move north, south, east, or west as their ecological and biological needs dictate.

It seems a lofty goal. Humans, after all, have spread themselves across the entire planet, modifying every environment as they go – oftentimes to an irreparable extreme. But knowing this, and recognizing that we are only just beginning to feel the effects of climate change, drastic measures to preserve what is left of this planet’s biological diversity become imperative. Hiss’s article is encouraging in this regard. Yes, the places he visited were confined to North America. A more accurate picture could be constructed by incorporating greater international diversity. However, most promising is that the people he talked to were not political figures. Most of them weren’t even professional scientists. They were businessmen, working people, land owners, citizen conservationists. Wealthy, yes. But people who, at some point in their life journeys, saw a need and wanted to help. The story of M.C. Davis illustrates this best of all. If the information is put out there in a manner that people can relate to, they will latch on to it and offer assistance. For all whose goal is to protect half of the earth (or even just some small portion of it) for the sake of non-human life, this article should give some hope.

Tree growing along a creek bed at The Nature Institute, a privately owned nature preserve in Godfrey, Illinois

Tree growing along a creek bed at The Nature Institute, a privately owned nature preserve in Godfrey, Illinois

Hundreds of Japanese Plants Threatened with Extinction

Life has existed on earth for at least 3.5 billion years, and during that time there have been five mass extinctions. Currently, we are in the middle of a sixth one. The major difference between the current extinction event and others is that this one is largely human caused, which is pretty upsetting. However, knowing that detail has its upside: if humans are the drivers of this phenomenon, we can also be the ones to put on the brakes.

Biologists have spent the last several decades tracking the current mass extinction, endeavoring to come up with a list of species that have the greatest risks of extinction, as well as lists of species that are at less of a risk, etc. The problem is that factors leading up to extinctions are diverse, and available data for making predictions is lacking, especially temporal data. Recognizing this information gap, researchers in Japan set out to better determine the extinction risk of Japanese flora. Using data from surveys done by lay botanists in 1994-95 and 2003-04, they were able to calculate a trend which indicated that, under current circumstances, between 370 and 561 plant species in Japan will go extinct within the next 100 years.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

The methods for this study, as described in the findings which appeared last month in PLOS ONE, involved dividing Japan into 3574 sections measuring around 100 square kilometers each and covering about 80% of the country. More than 500 lay botanists tallied the numbers of species that were found in each section during the two time periods. 1735 taxa were recorded, and out of those, 1618 were considered quantifiable and used in the analysis.

Japan is home to a recorded 7087 vascular plant taxa. Historically, the extinction rate of plant taxa in Japan has been around 0.01% per year. According to this study, over the next 100 years the extinction rate will rise to between 0.05 and 0.08% per year. Researchers are organizing a third census in the near future in order to monitor the actual extinction rate and better determine the accuracy of this prediction.

Data collected in these censuses was also used to evaluate the effectiveness of protected areas and determine the need for improvements and expansions. Natural parks cover 14.3% of Japan, but only about half of that area is regulated for biodiversity conservation. The researchers found that protected areas do help to reduce the risk of extinctions, but that their effectiveness is far from optimum and that even expanding protected areas to cover at least 17% of the nation (a target set at the recent Convention on Biological Diversity) would not effectively gaurd threatened plant species from extinction.

In their conclusion, the researchers advise not only to expand protected areas but to improve the “conservation effectiveness” of them, and “to improve the effectiveness of them, we need to know the types of pressures causing population decline in the areas.” They go on to list a few of these pressures, including land development and recreational overuse, and suggest that management schemes should be developed to focus on specific pressures.

Japanese Primrose, Primula japonica (photo credit: eol.org)

Japanese Primrose, Primula japonica (photo credit: eol.org)

One thing I found very interesting and encouraging about this study was the recruitment of lay botanists in collecting data. As stated in the findings, “Monitoring data collected by the public can play an essential role in assessing biodiversity.” I am excited by the growing citizen science movement and hope to see it continue to expand as more and more people become interested in science and eager to add to this body of knowledge. In fact, I consider the term “awkward botany” to be synonymous with citizen, lay, and amateur botany. That is precisely why I chose it as the title for my blog. So, in short, expect more posts involving citizen science in the future.

You can read more about this study on John Platt’s blog Extinction Countdown at Scientific American.