Species on the move

The world’s climate is changing rapidly. There, I said it! A statement backed by scientific evidence that keeps piling up, day by day. Yet, what is perhaps even more important: the impact of this changing climate on our world are now undeniably starting to surface as well. From the damaging effect of extreme weather events, over the slow-yet-steady rise of sea levels to the changes in the distribution of countless species; climate change is happening under our very eyes.

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Recent climate change is affecting a fragile balance, and the ball just started rolling

Concerning the latter, an impressive recent review in Science (Pecl et al., 2017) has bundled all these observed biodiversity redistributions, highlighting why we should care about them. And that last fact might be even more interesting, because at first sight, it might be not more than a scientific triviality if organisms are heading north or up in the mountains.

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Climate is changing, and species are moving along

Yet these observations are far more than just a triviality. Our lives connect much tighter with the living world than we realise from inside our nice nature-free concrete cubicles. Changes in species distributions will affect human lives, and it is already happening right now. This is dramatically exemplified  by mosquitoes such as Aedes and Anopheles, which play a crucial role in the distribution of malaria, yellow fever, dengue and several other diseases. With 750.000 human deaths a year, they are arguably the most deadly animal species of the world. Their distribution is however closely linked to temperatures and rainfall patterns, and consequently prone to rapid changes in a warming climate. For some areas, this could be a good thing, as mosquitoe numbers might fall, yet millions of people in vulnerable areas will be exposed to these mosquitoes in the near future, especially in Eastern Africa.

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Infographic from the Science-article, showing that species range shifts will affect ecosystem health, human well-being ànd climate change itself.

Albeit a dramatic one, this is just one of the countless examples of observed and predicted range changes that will affect our planet, varying from impacts on ecosystem health (e.g. crabs predating on organisms on the Antarctic seafloor that have never seen such a predator in their life), human well-being (fish species moving away from their fishing grounds, or the earlier mentioned mosquitoes) and even feedbacks on climate change itself (“Greening of the Arctic”, where larger shrubs are taking over from mosses and lichens, substantially changes the reflection of heat away from the earth).

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Shrubs are rapidly expanding to higher elevations and lattitudes in the north, with cascading effects on the whole ecosystem

The latter example provides additional insight in how these rapid distributional changes can cause an unstoppable cascade throughout the whole environment. The recent rapid shrub expansion in the Arctic tundra results in declines in the low-stature vegetation that is not prepared to deal with shade. Yet, the effect goes further, as has been shown that reindeer have been suffering from the decline in lichen, their favourite winter snack. The decline in reindeer consequently affects the economy of local Saami communities, with important challenges for the local and regional government.

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Reindeer herds are increasingly affected by the greening of the Arctic, as the cover of mosses and lichens gets reduced.

An important remark to end this worrying story: there will – as always – be winners and losers. Not all change is bad, and many positive surprises might pop up along the way. For example, coastal fishing communities in northern India are benefiting from the northward shift in the oil sardine’s range. In contrast, skipjack tuna is projected to become less abundant in western areas of the Pacific, where many countries depend on this fishery for economic development and food security.

Yet even with these positive effects, climate-driven range shifts will still provide massive challenges for our whole society: we will have to figure out how to deal with the negative, and get the most out of the positive effects. The impacts of species on the move will for example play a highly underestimated role in our capacity to achieve virtually all of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including good health, poverty reduction, economic growth, and gender equity.

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Agriculture around the world will strongly feel the impact of shifts in the location of optimal growing conditions, with major possible impacts on development and poverty reduction goals.

And that is all but a triviality.

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Want to know more? Check out the paper in Science:
Pecl et al. (2017). Biodiversity redistribution under climate change: impacts on ecosystems and human well-being. 
Science, 355, eaai9214.

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Avoiding the best spots

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How plants deal with stress has always fascinated me. Remember that post where I argued that plants can fly? Well, they can for sure, yet that does not mean they have to be able to deal with the circumstances wherever they land.

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Pickleweed, Salicornia sp.

It is thus a logical assumption that plants would prefer to be on the best spots possible in that sessile part of their lives: if you have to stay where you are, better be somewhere good, don’t you think? Yet there is animportant issues with being on a good spot: your neighbours.

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Competition for the good spots is tough, and only the best competitors will be able to survive there. Living in optimal conditions might thus easily be as much of a resource investment as the other alternative: living were conditions are much worse.

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And that brings me to the stress-tolerant species: plants that invested their energy in coping with stressfull conditions, instead of finding ways to outcompete others in less stressfull environments. Good examples of such stress-tolerant species can be found in the pictures in this post: all species from the Camargue in southern France, a brackish vegetation along the inland lagunes of the Meditteranean.

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An inland lagune close to Montpellier, France

They often are succulent, or at least very sturdy, with stems and leaves especially designed to limit the water loss in the high-salt environment. This investments has a cost concerning growth rate, reproduction etc., yet in an environment where only the tough ones can survive, growing fast is not a necessity.

More pictures: check the gallery called ‘Montpellier 2017‘ on the right of this blog.

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The feel of the south

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Do you want to experience the feeling of spring in the south of France? You will get the closest possible by visiting the beautiful picture gallery ‘Montpellier 2017’ on the right of my blog, or via this link. There you can see in a series of images how I experienced the south of France while I was there for the Functional Ecology conference end of March.

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White silene flower

An occasional conference is a necessity, in my opinion. Not only for the highly interesting and rewarding contacts with other scientists, yet also for the experience of the totally different ecology of the local ecosystem.

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For an ecologist, getting the feeling of a wide variety of these environments is even crucial to understand the world and how it works. It helps keeping an open mind when searching for global processes and local variation.

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Camargue horse enjoying the morning sun

Interestingly, these different environments also indirectly contribute to the power of a conference: they get reflected in the research topics and – even more importantly – the way of thinking of the scientists you meet there. They often add unexpected insights or viewpoints to what you thought of as a universal ecological viewpoint.

I thus spend some time getting to know key factors of the local nature: most notoriously the lowland salt marshes and the large amounts of water.

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Strike: 15 days and counting

This gallery contains 6 photos.

Originally posted on Lore and Leandro in French Guiana:
15 Days ago it all started with 1 roadblock in Kourou. Strikers blocked the access road to the Space Center in an attempt to delay the planned rocket launch. It worked.…

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Plants do fly

At the Functional Ecology conference in Montpellier (see earlier posts), several times I heard the saying that plants cannot fly and as such have a significant limitation compared to other organisms.

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Seeds of the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), possibly the most well-known image of flying plants

Yet I strongly disagree with that saying, no matter how true it might look at first sight. Plants do fly, some of them even for large distances, just not in all phases of their live. As in all organisms, it is important to understand the live of a plant through the different life stages it is going through: germination – growth – flowering – seed production – dispersal – new germination. Even within the same plant species, factors working in on each of these life cycle stages can be totally different from the other.

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A young Euphorbia growing in a bed of poplar tufts, seeds with long white hairs attached to them to aid wind dispersal

Many plant species are highly mobile, either flying, swimming, rolling, jumping or passively travelling attached to other mobile organisms or things. They just aren’t mobile in every life stage; their mobility is limited to their live as seeds. Yet this easily overlooked phase of mobility is not trivial: it defines why plants grow where they grow, it defines if they can track climate change or not, it defines if they are capable to track fast – or slow – changes in their environment.

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Little purple Veronica flower in a bed of poplar tuft

Even the duration of this phase is not necessarily neglegible. Many plants can stay mobile for a long time, until they find a spot to settle down, and especially for annual species the time spend as seed and as actual plant is not so different at all.

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Berries can fly as well, albeit often only in the stomach of a hungry bird

At the conference, I even gave a presentation about travelling plants, using their skills to hike uphill in the mountains. Such unusual travel plans will stay a significant component of my work in the next months, so stay tuned to learn some more!

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UPDATE 5/4/17: There is a second – highly important – life stage in which plants fly: as pollen. While they can travel impressively large distances in this shape, they of course need to find a conspecific flower at the end of their trip. Yet this gives most plants two distinct options in their lives to travel! Should I convince you more that plants are not  suffering from being sessile?

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Montpellier

A post on the Functional Ecology conference in Montpellier, organised by AnaEE France.

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Opening up the view on Montpellier and its cathedral

Montpellier, the city that opened up the views on the interesting topic of functional ecology (the theme of the 3-day conference I attended here this week).

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Overarching the entrance to the cathedral of Montpellier

A city that – through this conference – taught me that we need strong connections between the various pilars of ecology, and keep on searching for ways to integrate them: (1) repeating projects at different locations, yet taking into that each different location will have different factors at play; (2) searching for adequate models to cover this increasing complexity that we want to explain and (3) being aware of the need of good platforms to share data and information, that are consistent between different scientists.

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Two towers are better than one, as they are never exactly the same

And a city that again convinced me that two experiments are always better than one, as every attempt to approach an ecological issue from another direction will bring you closer to the truth, yet not always directly.

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Functional

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This week, I took the train down to Montpellier, in the sunny Meditteranean part of France, to join a conference on Functional Ecology. Here, scientists gather around the common goal of trying to find the ‘how’ in ecology. How do organisms do what they do, how do they ‘work’ in relationship with their environment?

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Next to an awesome location, we thus also have highly interesting scientific talks, that will hopefully teach me a lot more about a way of ecological thinking I have less experience with.

More pictures and stories from the Mediterranean soon!

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