In the News: Declining Insect Populations

Last week the New York Times published an article about declining populations of insects in the United States, specifically monarch butterflies and wild bees. Monarch butterflies migrate south to Mexico each fall, typically arriving by the millions on the first of November. This year was tragically different, because the monarchs did not arrive on the first, and when they finally began trickling in a week late, there were significantly less of them. In his article, The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear, Jim Robbins discusses why this and similar scenarios are becoming commonplace.

Increased pesticide use and global climate change are certainly contributing factors in the decline of insect populations; however, Robbins suggests that the loss of native habit is the major culprit. For example: monarch butterflies rely on milkweed (Asclepias spp.); in fact, their larvae feed exclusively on it. No milkweed = no new monarch butterflies. Urban sprawl, farmland expansion, Roundup Ready crops, and herbicide use along roadways all result in declining milkweed populations, as well as declines in the populations of other beneficial native plants.

And that’s not all. “Around the world people have replaced diverse natural habitat with the biological deserts that are roads, parking lots and bluegrass lawns, ” says Robbins, meanwhile landscape plants are selected for their ornamental appeal, “for their showy colors or shapes, not their ecological role.” In support of his argument, Robbins cites studies which found that native oak and willow species in the mid-Atlantic states are hosts to 537 and 456 species of caterpillars, respectively. On the other hand, non-native, ornamental ginkgoes host three.

Insects provide numerous ecosystem services. They help break down waste products, they are pollinators of countless species of plants (including many of our crops), and they are food sources for larger animals (including birds, reptiles, and amphibians)…and this is just the short list. As John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Thus, the decline of native insect populations is a concern that should not be taken lightly.

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Asclepias tuberosa – butterfly milkweed

If you haven’t already, please consider including some native plants in your yard. If you don’t have a yard, suggest the idea of landscaping with native plants to your friends. To learn more about monarch butterflies and their plight (including information on how to grow milkweed), visit www.monarchwatch.org.

Baobab Trees Facing Extinction

Declining populations of baobab trees have been a concern for more than a decade now. That concern has been amplified with the release of a recent study that shows that two baobab tree species endemic to Madagascar risk losing the majority of their available habitat due to climate change and human development in the coming decades.

Baobab trees are spectacular sights. Unique in appearance, they can grow up to about 100 feet tall with trunk diameters as wide as 36 feet and can live for hundreds (possibly thousands) of years. As the trees age, they develop hollow trunks used for storing water (as much as 26,000 gallons!) to help them survive long periods of drought. The fruits of baobab trees are coconut-sized and edible and are said to taste like sherbet. The leaves of at least one species are eaten as a vegetable, and the seeds of some species are used to make vegetable oil. Various other products, including fibers, dyes, and fuel are also derived from baobab trees.

There are nine species of baobab trees (Adansonia spp.). Eight are native to Africa and one is native to Australia. Two of the African species are also found on the Arabian Peninsula, and six of the African species are found only on Madagascar. Three of the Madagascan species (A. grandidieri, A. perrieri, and A. suarezensis) are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. Currently, A. perrieri has the lowest population of the three species, with only 99 observed trees. It is estimated that by 2080, its range will be reduced to 30% of what it currently is, further threatening its survival. A. suarezensis has a considerably larger population (15,000 trees) but a much smaller distribution area (1,200 square kilometers). By 2050, this area is estimated to be reduced to only 17 square kilometers, practically guaranteeing its eventual extinction. On the bright side, A. grandidieri has a population of about one million trees and an extensive range that should remain largely undisturbed in the coming decades.

An interesting component to this story is how giant tortoises fit in. The fruits and seeds of baobab trees are relatively large, and so their dispersal is best carried out by animals. Seeds that fall too close to the parent trees have little chance of survival since they will be shaded out and will have to compete with large, adjacent trees. Animals that eat the fruits of the baobab trees help to disperse the seeds by defecating them in areas away from large trees where the seedlings will have a greater chance of survival. Two species of giant tortoises that were once native to Madagascar but have now been extinct for hundreds of years were likely primary dispersers of baobab tree seeds. A recent study used a species of giant tortoise not native to Madagascar (the Aldabra giant tortoise) to test this hypothesis. The tortoise readily consume the fruit of the baobab tree. The seeds remain in the tortoise’s digestive system for up to 23 days, giving the tortoise plenty of time to move to an area suitable for seed germination. Given these findings, biologists are currently working to introduce Aldabra giant tortoises to Madagascar to help save the baobab trees.

Climate change, loss of habitat due to human development, and loss of seed dispersers due to extinction threaten the survival of some baobab tree species, but by recognizing this threat, biologists can work towards preventing their eventual extinction. As we gain a better understanding and appreciation for the need for biodiversity on our planet, we will resolve to take greater steps to protect it.

To learn more about baobab trees facing extinction and giant tortoises as seed dispersers, visit the Scientific American blog, Extinction Countdown, here and here.

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Adansonia grandidieri

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Autumn Leaves

It’s October, so fall is in full force in the northern hemisphere. Days are shorter and temperatures are cooler, but one sure sign that fall is here is that the leaves on deciduous trees are changing colors. Every autumn, leaves that were once a familiar green turn brilliantly red, fiery orange, or vibrantly yellow. And then they fall to the ground leaving trees exposed – just trunks and branches  – skeletons of what they once were during warmer and brighter days.

But why?

Surprisingly enough, the colors seen in autumn are largely present in the leaves throughout their lives, but we don’t see them. We only see green. This is because chloroplasts (cell organelles responsible for carrying out photosynthesis) contain chlorophyll, one of three main pigments found in the cells of leaves throughout the growing season. Chlorophyll absorbs red and blue light and reflects green light. Because chloroplasts are so abundant in the cells of leaves, leaves look green.

But carotenoids are hanging around, too. The second of the three main pigments, carotenoids protect chlorophyll from oxidation and aid in photosynthesis. They reflect blue-green and blue light and appear yellow, however their population is considerably smaller compared to chlorophyll, so their yellow color is masked.

When day length decreases, the level of chlorophyll in plant cells diminishes. As a result, the yellow color of the carotenoids begins to show. Also, a layer of cells called the abscission layer forms between branches and petioles (i.e. leaf stems). This abscission layer is what eventually causes branches to drop their leaves. As the chlorophyll begins to die off and the abscission layer forms, anthocyanins (the third of the three main pigments found in plant cells) are synthesized. Anthocyanins absorb blue, blue-green, and green light and appear red.

With chlorophyll virtually absent (and photosynthesis brought to a halt) carotenoids and anthocyanins become the major pigments found in leaves, giving them the autumn colors we are accustomed to seeing. But here is where it gets tricky…

Fall leaf color is largely dependent on various environmental conditions, including temperature, amount of sunlight, and soil moisture. If autumn is warm and wet, chlorophyll may be slow to die, and anthocyanins may be slow to form. Chlorophyll drops off more readily when it is cool and dry, and anthocyanins synthesize more readily when days are sunny. Dry, sunny days followed by cool, dry nights are said to offer the most vibrant fall colors. Additionally, global climate change is now playing a role, so fall colors may start to appear earlier or later or last longer or shorter depending on the region.

Do you have a favorite place to view fall foliage? Add your comments below.

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Cornus sericia – red-osier dogwood

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Ribes aureum – golden current

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Quercus palustris – pin oak

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Fraxinus sp. – ash

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Rhus sp. – sumac

A Plant Community’s Response to Climate Change

The threat of ensuing climate change has led many to consider what the future might look like for life on earth. Plant life will undoubtedly be affected, and numerous observations have already been made indicating that plants and plant communities are responding to changing climates.

A recent study, published in Ecology and Evolution, documented changes in the lower elevation boundaries and elevation ranges of common plants found on the Santa Catalina Mountains (near Tucson, Arizona). A study of this caliber is rare because there is relatively little data available to observe such changes over a long period of time. The scientists that carried out this study were able to use survey data collected by Robert Whittaker (the father of modern plant ecology) and William Niering in 1963. Whittaker and Niering conducted an extensive survey of plants along the Catalina Highway, which still exists today and runs along the southern slopes of the Santa Catalinas. Following similar data collection methods, researchers from the University of Arizona surveyed plants along the Catalina Highway nearly 50 years after the original survey. What they found confirmed predictions: montane plants in the southwest are responding to a warmer and drier climate by shifting their lower elevation limits upward.

The average annual air temperature in this region has increased an average of 0.25 degrees Celsius per decade since 1949. Also, rainfall has decreased significantly since Whittaker and Niering’s original plant survey. Twenty seven of the most common plant species were selected from the new survey and compared to the original survey data. Fifteen of the twenty seven species (56%) have significantly shifted their lower elevation boundaries, moving further up the slopes of the mountains to escape higher temperatures and reduced rainfall. Some of the plant species have also shifted their upper elevation boundaries, with four of them moving further upslope and eight of them moving further downslope.

The authors of this study state that “even a casual observer could recognize changes in plant elevation boundaries.” Alligator juniper, bracken fern, beargrass, and sotol are examples of plants in the Catalinas that have noticeably migrated upslope and are no longer found at lower elevations where they were once common. Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana), for one, was once documented growing at least as low as 3500 feet, but now does not occur until after the 5000 feet mark.

This rare opportunity to compare current plant survey data with old data paints a stark picture regarding the effects of climate change. As plants and animals are forced upslope to escape warmer and drier climates, they may eventually find themselves with nowhere to go and ultimately end up extinct, reducing overall biodiversity on the planet. The authors of this study conclude their findings with this statement: “The shifts in plant ranges we observed in the Santa Catalina Mountains indicate that the area occupied by montane woodland and conifer forests in the Desert Southwest is likely to decrease even more with predicted increases in temperature, and that regional plant community composition has and will continue to change with further warming as plant species respond individualistically to changing climates.”

Read more about this study at the University of Arizona news site.

alligator juniper_juniperus deppeana

Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana)

photo credit: wikimedia commons