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.

Thoughts on Equisetum Phylogenesis

This a guest post. Words and photos by Jeremiah Sandler.

These notes do not discuss either anatomy or medicinal uses of Equisetum. Both topics are worthy of their own discourse.

Plants in the genus Equisetum can be found on each continent of our planet, except for Antarctica. The plants are collectively referred to as scouring rush or horsetail.  Equisetum is in the division of plants called Pteridophytes, which contains all of the ferns and fern-allies (lycopods, whisk ferns, etc.) Pteridophytes are characterized by having a vascular system and by reproducing with spores, rather than seeds. Equisetum is the only living genus within the entire class Equisetopsida.  Within this single genus, there are a mere 20 species.

Picture 1

Equisetums can live pretty much anywhere. They can tolerate lots of shade, lots of sun, and virtually any soil condition (including submerged soil). Rhizomatous stems make it difficult for either disease or insects to kill an entire population. They do not require pollinators because they reproduce with spores.  Sounds like a recipe for reproductive and evolutionary success. Yet with all of these traits working in their favor, there is only a single genus left.  

Where’d they all go?

Picture 2

Let’s briefly consider the origin of these plants first. In the late Paleozoic Era, during the end of the Cambrian Period, these plants began their takeover. Shortly thereafter (about 70 million years later), in the Devonian Period, land plants began to develop a tree-like habit, also called “arborescence.” Tree-sized ferns and fern-allies ruled the planet. They formed the ancient forests.

The elements required for photosynthesis were plentiful. The planet was warm. Competition from the Cambrian Explosion of flora and fauna drove plants upwards towards the sky. Larger plants can both shade their competition and remain out of reach of herbivores. None of the Equisetum species alive today are near their ancestors’ height.  

picture 3

It is rather obvious why we don’t see as many Equisetum species, and why they are not as large: The planet now is not the same planet it once was. Oxygen levels back in those times were about 15% higher than today’s levels. Seed plants can diversify much faster than non-seed-bearing plants; Equisetum cannot compete with the rate of diversification of seed-bearing plants.

The most interesting predicament comes when Equisetum is compared with other Pteridophytes. Some ancient Pteridophytes still do have diversity of genera. True Ferns, as they’re called, are broad-leaved ferns. In the class Filicopsida, there are 4 orders of True Ferns containing about 100 genera combined. Equisetum has 1 order and 1 genera.

What’s the primary difference between these two classes of Pteridophytes?  Broad leaves.

Most pteridophytes tolerate some shade; most other plants can’t tolerate as deep of shade as ferns. More specifically, the amount of shade the plants create could be a deciding factor in this question. True ferns have all of the traits equisetums have, with one additional physical trait that has pulled them ahead: Broad leaves allow true ferns to actively shade out local competition while creating more habitat for themselves. Equisetums don’t have this aggressive capacity.

Of course there are other biological and evolutionary pressures affecting equisetums beside their lack of broad leaves. The structure they do possess has benefited them at a time when it was advantageous to have it.  Otherwise why would it exist? Equisetums remind me of the dynamic nature of a planet. I don’t anticipate equisetums coming back. 

Although, I find it entertaining to humor the idea that they might return to their former glory. The planet’s climate could change toward any direction (I’m not a climatologist, though). Maybe equisetums are adequately prepared to adapt to whatever changes come – or maybe we are observing the gradual decline of an old branch on the tree of life.  

Resources:

Botany in Popular Culture: Futurama’s Holiday Spectacular

Matt Groening and David X. Cohen’s animated sitcom, Futurama, is replete with social commentary. Set in the 31st Century, it’s not surprising that much of that commentary involves environmental issues. Episode 13 of season 6 – a special, holiday season episode – addresses a number of such issues, including extinction, global warming, fossil fuel depletion, and Colony Collapse Disorder. The episode is broken up into three, distinct segments; each has its own storyline, but all – apart from being environmentally themed – center around traditional (in the fictional world of Futurama) holiday celebrations. Hence, the title of the episode: The Futurama Holiday Spectacular.

Botany plays a particularly prominent role in the first segment of the episode. In the 31st Century, Christmas has morphed into a holiday called Xmas. In the opening scene, the Planet Express Crew has decorated a palm tree to look like a Christmas tree. Looking despondent, Philip J. Fry (a pizza delivery boy from the 21st century who was inadvertently cryopreserved and thawed 1,000 years later) laments, “Something about Xmas just doesn’t feel like Christmas.”  Just then, the arrival of Santa is announced.

In the 31st Century, Santa Claus has been replaced by a robot called Robot Santa, and instead of gifts and holiday cheer, he brings violence and mayhem. The crew begins to lock down the Planet Express headquarters in preparation for Robot Santa’s arrival. Disturbed by this, Fry demands to know how “this crazy holiday” is celebrated – “preferably in song.”  At which point, Robot Santa bursts out of the fireplace singing, “It’s the violentest season of the year…”

robot santa

After a few violent exchanges between the crew and Robot Santa, Robot Santa sings, “The one thing that you need to make your Xmas Day splendiferous / Is a pine tree – a pine tree that’s coniferous.” The crew agrees; they need “an old-fashioned pine tree.” But there is one problem.

“Pine trees have been extinct for over 800 years,” explains Professor Farnsworth. Apparently, they were all chopped down and turned into toilet paper during something called “The Fifty-Year Squirts.” Yet, the Professor exclaims, “There is one hope and, as usual, it’s Norwegian!” And at that, the crew heads off to Norway.

In Norway, the crew arrives at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault where, as the Professor explains, “since 2008, the vault has preserved seeds of every known plant species in case of extinction.” They are confronted by a seed vault employee who asks why the crew is “pokey-poking about the seed vault – guardian of mankind’s precious botanical heritage there?”

The Professor tells the man that they are there to “rummage about a bit.” The crew notes that there is a Germ Warfare Repository that has been constructed right next to the seed vault and asks if there are any cross-contamination concerns. The man says, “No,” and then lets them inside where he brings them a container marked Pinus xmas. Amy notices some “splork” on the seeds and asks, “It’s not germs is it?” Again the man says, “No.” 

futurama2

The Planet Express crew at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault being presented with the seeds of Pinus xmas.

Back in New New York, Fry plants a pine tree seed outside the Planet Express building. A year later, a sapling as tall as Fry has emerged. Fry declares, “Now that’s a tree worth chopping down.” At that point, President Nixon pulls up in his limousine and sees the tree. “That’s what my poll numbers need, ” he says turning to Vice President Cheney – both of them animated heads in jars. Cheney orders Nixon to steal the tree.

The tree is transplanted in front of the White House. During the Xmas tree lighting ceremony, the tree begins to grow rapidly. Apparently it was contaminated with a weaponized virus after all. It begins to produce cones which then fly off the tree and explode. Shortly after the explosions, more pine trees begin to emerge and grow rapidly, at which point Leela exclaims, “Wait! This could be a good thing. Reforestation has begun!” However, this reforestation is occurring at an extremely rapid pace, and before long all land on Earth is completely covered in pine trees.

Soon, all manner of wildlife is found frolicking among the trees. Again Leela exclaims, “Arguably, this could be a good thing. The planet has returned to its primeval state!” The Professor concurs, “All these pine trees are fighting global warming by producing oxygen.”

But the “good news” doesn’t last long. The oxygen level continues to increase and quickly reaches 80%. Ignorantly, Bender decides to celebrate his own laziness with a cigar. As he lights it, the entire planet bursts into flames. Robot Santa returns to announce, “Ho ho ho! Everyone’s dead!”

Futurama

Similar dark comedy ensues in the other two segments as the crew learns about the holiday traditions of Robanukah and Kwanzaa. Again, both segments explore important environmental concerns in the process. Al Gore’s animated head in a jar makes appearances throughout the episode. If you are looking for some added hilarity during this holiday season – as well as some bleak environmental messaging – you can’t go wrong with Futurama’s Holiday Spectacular.

Interesting fact: In 2011, this episode of Futurama won an Environmental Media Award for best comedic television episode with an environmental message. EMA’s have been awarded since 1991 to “honor film and television productions and individuals that increase public awareness of environmental issues and inspire personal action on these issues.”

Year of Pollination: Bumblebees and Climate Change

Bumblebees, generally speaking, are having a rough time. In a world increasingly dominated by humans, some bumblebee species continue to thrive while many others are seriously struggling. Several are nearing extinction. A recent study involving 67 species of European and North American bumblebees concluded that climate change is having a major impact. Bumblebees do not appear to be migrating north in response to warming climates – a hesitation that could spell disaster.

There are over 250 species of bumblebees worldwide (46 are found in North America north of Mexico). Unlike other bees, whose diversity is greatest in Mediterranean climates, bumblebee diversity is highest in cool, temperate climates and montane regions. The majority of bumblebee species are native to the Northern Hemisphere; a few species are native to South America, and a handful of species from Europe have been introduced to New Zealand and Tasmania. Some species of bumblebees, such as the polar bumble bee (Bombus polaris) and the forest bumble bee (Bombus sylvicola), can be found in extreme cold climates and are among a select group of pollinators found in such areas.

The field guide, Bumble Bees of North America, by Paul Williams, et al. provides this description:

“Bumble bees are very hairy bees with combinations of contrasting bright colors, mostly black and yellow, sometimes with various combinations of red or white. They have two pairs of wings that are usually folded back over the abdomen while they are foraging on flowers, or hooked together as a single unit when in flight. Bumble bees also have slender elbowed antennae, and females of the pollen-collecting species have the hind tibia expanded, slightly concave, and fringed with long hairs to form a pollen basket or corbicula.”

Most bee species are solitary insects; bumblebees, like honeybees, are social insects. Unlike honeybees, bumblebee colonies begin with a new queen each year. New queens, after mating in late summer, overwinter in a protected area and emerge in the spring. They then search for food and a nesting site. Suitable nests include abandoned rodent dens,  the bases of bunchgrasses, hollow logs, and human-made structures. They build up a colony of workers which maintain the nest and forage for food and other resources. As the season comes to a close, the queen produces males and new queens. The new queens mate, go into hibernation, and the rest of the bumblebee colony dies off.

Brown-belted Bumblebee (Bombus griseocollis) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Brown-belted Bumblebee (Bombus griseocollis) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Bumblebees face numerous threats, both natural and human-caused. Despite their defensive sting, they are regularly eaten or attacked by various mammals, birds, and invertebrates. They are also host to a variety of pests, parasites, and pathogens, some of which have been introduced or exacerbated by human activities. The commercial bee industry is particularly at fault for the spread of certain maladies. Other major threats include loss of habitat and excessive and/or poorly timed use of insecticides. One looming threat that new research suggests is especially concerning is climate change.

A group of researchers from various institutions looked at the historical ranges of 67 species of bumblebees in Europe and North America over a 110 year period. They “measured differences in species’ northern and southern range limits, the warmest or coolest temperatures occupied, and their mean elevations in three periods relative to a baseline period.” They found that on both continents bumblebees are not tracking climate change by expanding their northern range limits and that their southern range limits are shrinking. They also observed that within the southern range limits, some bumblebee species have retreated to higher elevations. They investigated land use changes and pesticide applications (in the US only) to determine the effect they had on the results. While these things certainly affect populations on an individual level, climate change was determined to be the most important factor that lead to nearly universal range contractions of the bumblebees in this study.

The question then is why are they not tracking changing climates the same way that many other species of plants and animals have already been observed doing? Bumblebees evolved in cooler climates, so shrinking southern range limits is not as surprising as the bumblebees’ delay in moving north. Many factors may be contributing to this phenomenon including lack of specialized habitats beyond their historical ranges, daylength differences, and population dynamics. The researchers call for further investigation in order to better evaluate this observed “range compression.” They also suggest experimenting with assisted migration of certain bumblebee colonies, which in general is a controversial topic among conservation biologists. (Read more about this study here.)

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

The loss of bumblebees is concerning because they play a prominent role in the various ecosystems in which they live. They are prolific and highly effective pollinators of both agricultural crops and native plants, and they are also a major component in the food web. Some species of plants “prefer” the pollination services of bumblebees, such as those in the family Solanaceae. Many plants in this family benefit greatly from buzz pollination – a process in which a bumblebee (or occasionally bees of other species) grabs hold of the flower and vibrates its body, dislodging the pollen.

Participating in bumblebee conservation is simple. It’s similar to any other kind of pollinator conservation. Just learning about the pollinators in your region and being mindful of them can make a big difference. If you own or rent property and have space for a garden (even if its just a few containters on a patio), choose plants that provide food for bumblebees, including spring and summer bloomers. If you live in North America, this Xerces Society publication and the field guide mentioned above are great resources that can help you determine which plants are best for your region. Additionally, if you are working in your yard and happen upon a hibernating queen or a bumblebee nest, do your best not to disturb it. It may disrupt your gardening plans for a season, but the bumblebee sightings and the pollination service they provide will be worth it.

One family of plants in particular that you should consider representing in your yard is the legume family (Fabaceae). Bumblebees are commonly seen pollinating plants in this family, and because these plants have the ability to convert nitrogen in the air into fertilizer, their pollen is especially rich in protein. In his book, A Sting in the Tale, Dave Goulson describes the relationship between bumblebees and legumes:

“From a bumblebee’s perspective, legumes are among the most vital components of a wildflower meadow. Plants of this family include clovers, trefoils and vetches, as well as garden vegetables such as peas and beans, and they have an unusual trick that allows them to thrive in low-fertility soils. Their roots have nodules, small lumps inside which live Rhizobium, bacteria that can trap nitrogen from the air and turn it into a form usable by plants. … This relationship gave legumes a huge advantage in the days before artificial fertilizers were widely deployed. Ancient hay meadows are full of clovers, trefoils, vetches, meddicks and melilots, able to outcompete grasses because they alone have access to plentiful nutrients. Most of these plants are pollinated by bumblebees.”

More information about bumblebees and bumblebee conservation:

Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Bumble Bee Watch

BugGuide (Bombus)

The Xerces Society – Project Bumble Bee

Making the Case for Saving Species

It is no question that the human species has had a dramatic impact on the planet. As our population has grown and we have spread ourselves across the globe, our presence has altered every ecosystem we have come into contact with. Our footprints can be detected even in areas of the planet uninhabited by humans. As awareness of our impact has increased, we have made efforts to reduce it. However, much of the damage we have caused is irreversible – we can’t bring species back from extinction and we can’t replace mountaintops. Furthermore, for better or for worse our continued existence – despite efforts to minimize our negative influence – will continue to be impactful. This is the nature of being human. It is the nature of all living things, really. As John Muir said, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” That we are cognizant of that fact puts us at a crossroads – do we make a concerted effort to protect and save other species from the negative aspects of our presence or do we simply go on with our lives and let come what may?

The quandary isn’t that black and white, obviously. For one thing, cleaning up polluted air, water, and soil is beneficial to humans and has the side benefit of improving the lives of other species. Protecting biodiversity is also in our best interest, because who knows what medicine, food, fiber, or other resource is out there in some living thing yet to be discovered that might be useful to us. On the other hand, putting our own interests aside, what about protecting other species and habitats just to protect them? Purely altruistically. That seems to be the question at the crux of an article by Emma Marris in the May/June 2015 issue of Orion entitled, “Handle with Care: The Case for Doing All We Can to Save Threatened Species.” [Listen to a brief discussion with Marris about the article here.]

The main character in Marris’ article is the whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis), a species whose native habitat is high in mountain ranges of western United States and Canada. Whitebark pines thrive in areas few other trees can, living to ages greater than 1,000 years. Here is how Marris describes them:

Whitebark pine’s ecological niche is the edge of existence. The trees are found on the highest, driest, coldest, rockiest, and windiest slopes. While lodgepole and ponderosa pine grow in vast stands of tall, healthy-looking trees, slow-growing whitebarks are tortured by extremes into individualized, flayed forms, swollen with massive boles from frost damage. Their suffering makes them beautiful.

photo credit: www.eol.org

photo credit: www.eol.org

But in recent years they have been suffering more than usual. White pine blister rust, an introduced pathogen, is killing the trees. The native mountain pine beetle is also taking them out. Additional threats include climate change and an increased number, extent, and intensity of wildfires. Combined, these threats have been impactful enough that the species is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List where it is described as “experiencing serious decline.”

So people are taking action. In Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, botanist Jen Beck is part of an effort to select blister rust resistant trees and plant them in their native habitats within the park. Hundreds have been planted, and more are on their way. Great effort is taken to minimize human impact and to plant the trees as nature would, with the vision being that blister rust resistant trees will replace those that are dying and that trees with rust resistant genes will dominate the population.

But Beck faces opposition, and not just from challenges like seedlings being trampled by visitors or a warming climate inviting mountain hemlocks and other trees into whitebark pine’s native range, but by people who argue that the trees shouldn’t be planted there in the first place – that what is “wild” should be left alone. Marris specifically calls out a group called Wilderness Watch. They and other groups like them profess a “leave-it alone ethic.” Rather than be arrogant enough to assume that we can “control or fix disrupted nature,” we should respect the “self-willed spirit of the wild world.” Proponents of nonintervention criticize what they call “new environmentalism” and its efforts to engineer or manage landscapes, fearing that these actions are “morally empty” and that “rearranging bits of the natural world” lacks soul and will ultimately serve to benefit humans.

In her article, Marris argues against this approach. First off, the human footprint is too large, and for natural areas to “continue to look and function the way they did hundreds of years ago” will require “lots of human help.” Additionally, nonintervention environmentalism “perpetuates a false premise that humans don’t belong in nature,” and if we decide not to work to protect, save, or restore species and habitats that have been negatively affected by our actions simply because we are “in thrall to wildness”, we will be withdrawing with “blood on our hands.” Marris sums up her position succinctly in the following statement:

We have to do whatever it takes to keep ecosystems robust and species from extinction in the face of things like climate change. And if that means that some ecosystems aren’t going to be as pretty to our eyes, or as wild, or won’t hew to some historical baseline that seems important to us, then so be it. We should put the continued existence of other species before our ideas of where or how they should live.

Marris acknowledges that there are risks to this approach. “Our meddling” may save species, but it could also backfire. But that doesn’t mean the effort wasn’t worth it. We can learn from our mistakes and we can make improvements to our methods. Some sites can even be cordoned off as areas of nonintervention simply so that we can learn from them. The ultimate goal, however, should be to save as many species and to keep as much of their habitat intact as possible. Putting “other species first, and our relationship with them second” is what Marris considers to be a “truly humble” stance in our role as part of nature.

Cones of whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulis (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Cones of whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulis (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The dichotomy presented in this article is a tough one, and one that will be debated (in my mind particularly) long into the future. If you would like to share your thoughts with me about this issue, do so in the comment section below or by sending me a private message through the contact page.

Other article reviews on Awkward Botany

Speaking of Food: A Special Issue of American Journal of Botany

“At the center of discussions about agriculture and the future of food in a changing climate are the plants that we grow for food, fiber, and fuels and the science that is required to understand, improve, and conserve them.”

That is a line from the opening paragraph of the introduction to the October 2014 issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Plant Science. In this Special Issue, the American Journal of Botany – inspired by Elizabeth Kellogg’s 2012 presidential address to the Botanical Society of America – endeavors to demonstrate ways in which basic plant biology research can benefit the applied science of agriculture, and how this “use-inspired” research can help address the challenges of feeding a growing population in a changing climate.

speaking of food_ajb

In its 100 year history, the American Journal of Botany, has published hundreds of papers that serve to advance agricultural and horticultural sciences. However, this connection has not always been made explicit. With this special issue, they are hoping to change that by “illustrat[ing] that ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ are not two discrete categories, nor are they even extremes of a linear continuum.” “Basic” research can be used to answer questions and solve “human-centered problems,” and “applied” research can “illuminate general biological principles.” When both approaches to scientific inquiry come together, everyone benefits.

I originally chose to study horticulture because I was interested in growing food in a sustainable and responsible manner. During my studies, I gained a greater interest in the broader field of horticulture as well as an interest in botany. After receiving a degree in horticultural and crop sciences, I decided to pursue a Master’s Degree. I wanted to study green roof technology, an applied science that incorporated my interests in both horticulture and sustainability. The school that I ended up going to did not have a horticulture program, so I enrolled in a biological sciences program. It was there, while doing applied science research on green roofs and taking mostly botany related science courses, that I deepened my love for science and began to see how basic science had applications, not just in horticulture and agriculture, but in all aspects of life.

That explains my great interest in this recent issue of American Journal of Botany, and why I was so excited when I heard about it. Using science to understand and address the challenges that we face today (challenges that, many of which, are a result of human activity) is intriguing to me. Based on my interest in horticulture, food production, and sustainability, establishing and advancing science-based sustainable agriculture is incredibly important to me. And so I have decided that, over the next several posts, I will provide reviews of each of the 17 articles in AJB’s Special Issue. Each post will offer a brief overview of one or more articles, outlining the basic premises and findings of each study. If your interest is peaked, and I hope it will be, you can go on to read more about each of the studies. The Introduction to this issue gives an excellent overview of the articles, so I won’t include that here. I’ll just dive right in. If you feel inclined, read ahead, otherwise stay tuned and I will preview you it all for you over the next several weeks.

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