Alien Plant Invasions and the Extinction Trajectory

One of the concerns about introduced species becoming invasive is that they threaten to reduce the biodiversity of the ecosystems they have invaded. They do this by spreading rampantly, using up resources and space, altering ecosystem functions, and ultimately pushing other species out. In the case of certain invasive animals, species may be eliminated via predation; but plants don’t eat each other (generally), so if one plant species is to snuff out another plant species it must use other means. Presently, we have no evidence that a native plant species has been rendered extinct solely as a result of an invasive plant species. That does not mean, however, that invasive plants are not doing harm.

In a paper published in AoB Plants in August 2016, Paul O. Downey and David M. Richardson argue that, when it comes to plants, focusing our attention on extinctions masks the real impact that invasive species can have. In general, plants go extinct more slowly than animals, and it is difficult to determine that a plant species has truly gone extinct. Some plants are very long-lived, so the march towards extinction can extend across centuries. But the real challenge – after determining that there are no above-ground signs of life – is determining that no viable seeds remain in the soil (i.e. seed bank). Depending on the species, seeds can remain viable for dozens (even hundreds) of years, so when conditions are right, a species thought to be extinct can emerge once again. (Consider the story of the Kankakee mallow.)

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that invasive plant species have had significant impacts on certain native plant populations and have placed such species on, what Downey and Richardson call, an extinction trajectory. It is this trajectory that deserves our attention if our goal is to save native plant species from extinction. As described in the paper, the extinction trajectory has six steps – or thresholds – which are defined in the infographic below:

6-threshold-extinction-trajectory

Downey and Richardson spend a portion of the paper summarizing research that demonstrates how invasive plants have driven native plants into thresholds 1-3, thereby placing them on an extinction trajectory. In New Zealand, Lantana camara (introduced from the American tropics) creates dense thickets, outcompeting native plants. Researchers found that species richness of native plants declined once L. camara achieved 75% cover in the test sites. In the U.S., researchers found reduced seed set in three native perennial herbs as a result of sharing space with Lonicera mackii (introduced from Asia), suggesting that the alien species is likely to have a negative impact on the long-term survivability of these native plants. Citing such research, Downy and Richardson conclude that “it is the direction of change that is fundamentally important – the extinction trajectory and the thresholds that have been breached – not whether a native plant species has actually been documented as going extinct due to an alien plant species based on a snapshot view.”

Introduced to New Zealand from the American tropics, largeleaf lantana (Lantana camara) forms dense thickets that can outcompete native plant species. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Introduced to New Zealand from the American tropics, largeleaf lantana (Lantana camara) forms dense thickets that can outcompete native plant species. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

In support of their argument, they also address problems with the way some research is done (“in many instances appropriate data are not collected over sufficiently long periods,” etc.), and they highlight the dearth of data and research (“impacts associated with most invasive alien plants have not been studied or are poorly understood or documented”). With those things in mind, they make recommendations for improving research and they encourage long-term studies and collaboration in order to address the current “lack of meta analyses or global datasets.” A similar recommendation was made in American Journal of Botany in June 2015.

The language in this report makes it clear that the authors are responding to a certain group of people that have questioned whether or not the threat of invasive plants has been overstated and if the measures we are taking to control invasive plants are justified. The following cartoon that appeared along with a summary of the article way oversimplifies the debate:

04_figure2

Boy: There are no studies that show weeds cause native plants to go extinct, thus we should not control them. Plant: If we wait until then, we’ll all be gone!!! Girl: Just because no one has demonstrated it does not mean that extinctions do not occur. The problem is not overstated!

It seems to me that a big part of why we have not linked an invasive plant species to a native plant species extinction (apart from the difficulty of determining with certainty that a plant has gone extinct) is that extinctions are often the result of a number of factors. The authors do eventually say that: “it is rare that one threatening process in isolation leads to the extinction of a species.” So, as much as it is important to fully understand the impacts that invasive plant species are having, it is also important to look at the larger picture. What else is going on that may be contributing to population declines?

Observing invaded plant populations over a long period seems like our best bet in determining the real effects that invasive species are having. In some cases, as Downey and Richardson admit, “decreased effects over time” have been documented, and so “the effects [of invasive species] are dynamic, not static.” And speaking of things that are dynamic, extinction is a dynamic process and one that we generally consider to be wholly negative. But why? What if that isn’t always the case? Extinctions have been a part of life on earth as long as life has been around. Is there anything “good” that can come out of them?

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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.”

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.

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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.

baobab tree

Adansonia grandidieri

photo credit: wikimedia commons