Saving Bornean Peatlands is a Must For Conservation

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The leading cause of extinction on this planet is loss of habitat. As an ecologist, it pains me to see how frequently this gets ignored. Plants, animals, fungi - literally every organism on this planet needs a place to live. Without habitat, we are forced to pack our flora and fauna into tiny collections in zoos and botanical gardens, completely disembodied from the environment that shaped them into what we know and love today. That’s not to say that zoos and botanical gardens don’t play critically important roles in conservation, however, if we are going to stave off total ecological meltdown, we must also be setting aside swaths of land.

There is no way around it. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. Land conservation must be a priority both at the local and the global scale. Wild spaces support life. They buffer it from storms and minimize the impacts of deadly diseases. Healthy habitats filter the water we drink and, for many people around the globe, provide much of the food we eat. Every one of us can think back to our childhood and remember a favorite stretch of stream, meadow, or forest that has since been gobbled up by a housing development. For me it was a forested stream where I learned to love the natural world. I would spend hours playing in the creek, climbing trees, and capturing bugs to show my parents. Since that time, someone leveled the forest, built a house, and planted a lawn. With that patch of forest went all of the insects, birds, and wildflowers it once supported.

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Scenarios like this play out all too often and sadly on a much larger scale than a backyard. Globally, forests have felt taken the brunt of human development. Though it is hard to get a sense of the scope of deforestation on a global scale, the undisputed leaders in deforestation are Brazil and Indonesia. Though the Amazon gets a lot of press, few may truly grasp the gravity of the situation playing out in Southeast Asia.

Deforestation is a clear and present threat throughout tropical Asia. This region is growing both in its economy and population by about 6% every year and this growth has come at great cost to the environment. Indonesia (alongside Brazil) accounts for 55% of the world’s deforestation rates. This is a gut-wrenching statistic because Indonesia alone is home to the most extensive area of intact rainforest in all of Asia. So far, nearly a quarter of Indonesia’s forests have been cleared. It was estimated that by 2010, 2.3 million hectares of peatland forests had been felled and this number shows little signs of slowing. Experts believe that if these rates continue, this area could lose the remainder of its forests by 2056.

Consider the fact that Southeast Asia contains 6 of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots and you can begin to imagine the devastating blow that the levelling of these forests can have. Much of this deforestation is done in the name of agriculture, and of that, palm oil and rubber take the cake. Southeast Asia is responsible for 86% of the world’s palm oil and 87% of the world’s natural rubber. What’s more, the companies responsible for these plantations are ranked among some of the least sustainable in the world.

Palm oil plantations where there once was rainforest. 

Palm oil plantations where there once was rainforest. 

Borneo is home to a bewildering array of life. Researchers working there are constantly finding and describing new species, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. Of the roughly 15,000 plant species known from Borneo, botanists estimate that nearly 5,000 (~34%) of them are endemic. This includes some of the more charismatic plant species such as the beloved carnivorous pitcher plants in the genus Nepenthes. Of these, 50 species have been found growing in Borneo, many of which are only known from single mountain tops.

It has been said that nowhere else in the world has the diversity of orchid species found in Borneo. To date, roughly 3,000 species have been described but many, many more await discovery. For example, since 2007, 51 new species of orchid have been found. Borneo is also home to the largest flower in the world, Rafflesia arnoldii. It, along with its relatives, are parasites, living their entire lives inside of tropical vines. These amazing plants only ever emerge when it is time to flower and flower they do! Their superficial resemblance to a rotting carcass goes much deeper than looks alone. These flowers emit a fetid odor that is proportional to their size, earning them the name “carrion flowers.”

Rafflesia arnoldii  in all of its glory.

Rafflesia arnoldii in all of its glory.

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If deforestation wasn’t enough of a threat to these botanical treasures, poachers are having considerable impacts on Bornean botany. The illegal wildlife trade throughout southeast Asia gets a lot of media attention and rightfully so. At the same time, however, the illegal trade of ornamental and medicinal plants has gone largely unnoticed. Much of this is fueled by demands in China and Vietnam for plants considered medicinally valuable. At this point in time, we simply don’t know the extent to which poaching is harming plant populations. One survey found 347 different orchid species were being traded illegally across borders, many of which were considered threatened or endangered. Ever-shrinking forested areas only exacerbate the issue of plant poaching. It is the law of diminishing returns time and time again.

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But to lump all Bornean forests under the general label of “rainforest” is a bit misleading. Borneo has multitude of forest types and one of the most globally important of these are the peatland forests. Peatlands are vital areas of carbon storage for this planet because they are the result of a lack of decay. Whereas leaves and twigs quickly breakdown in most rainforest situations, plant debris never quite makes it that far in a peatland. Plant materials that fall into a peatland stick around and build up over hundreds and thousands of years. As such, an extremely thick layer of peat is formed. In some areas, this layer can be as much as 20 meters deep! All the carbon tied up in the undecayed plant matter is carbon that isn’t finding its way back into our atmosphere.

Sadly, tropical peatlands like those found in Borneo are facing a multitude of threats. In Indonesia alone, draining, burning, and farming (especially for palm oil) have led to the destruction of 1 million hectares (20%) of peatland habitat in only one decade. The fires themselves are especially worrisome. For instance, it was estimated that fires set between 1997-1998 and 2002-2003 in order to clear the land for palm oil plantations released 200 million to 1 billion tonnes of carbon into our atmosphere. Considering that 60% of the world’s tropical peatlands are found in the Indo-Malayan region, these numbers are troubling.

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The peatlands of Borneo are totally unlike peatlands elsewhere in the world. Instead of mosses, gramminoids, and shrubs, these tropical peatlands are covered in forests. Massive dipterocarp trees dominate the landscape, growing on a spongey mat of peat. What’s more, no water flows into these habitats. They are fed entirely by rain. The spongey nature of the peat mat holds onto water well into the dry season, providing clean, filtered water where it otherwise wouldn’t be available.

This lack of decay coupled with their extremely acidic nature and near complete saturation makes peat lands difficult places for survival. Still, life has found a way, and Borneo’s peatlands are home to a staggering diversity of plant life. They are so diverse, in fact, that when I asked Dr. Craig Costion, a plant conservation officer for the Rainforest Trust, for something approaching a plant list for an area of peatland known as Rungan River region, he replied:

“Certainly not nor would there ever be one in the conceivable future given the sheer size of the property and the level of diversity in Borneo. There can be as many as a 100 species per acre of trees in Borneo... Certainly a high percentage of the species would only be able to be assigned to a genus then sit in an herbarium for decades until someone describes them.”

And that is quite remarkable when you think about it. When you consider that the Rungan River property is approximately 385,000 acres, the number of plant species to consider quickly becomes overwhelming. To put that in perspective, there are only about 500 tree species native to the whole of Europe! And that’s just considering the trees. Borneo’s peatlands are home to myriad plant species from liverworts, mosses, and ferns, to countless flowering plants like orchids and others. We simply do not know what kind of diversity places like Borneo hold. One could easily spend a week in a place like the Rungan River and walk away with dozens of plant species completely new to science. Losing a tract of forest in such a biodiverse is a huge blow to global biodiversity.

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Nepenthes ampullaria  relies on decaying plant material within its pitcher for its nutrient needs.

Nepenthes ampullaria relies on decaying plant material within its pitcher for its nutrient needs.

Also, consider that all this plant diversity is supporting even more animal diversity. For instance, the high diversity of fruit trees in this region support a population of over 2,000 Bornean orangutans. That is nearly 4% of the entire global population of these great apes! They aren’t alone either, the forested peatlands of Borneo are home to species such as the critically endangered Bornean white-bearded gibbon, the proboscis monkey, the rare flat-headed cat, and the oddly named otter civet. All these animals and more rely on the habitat provided by these forests. Without forests, these animals are no more.

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The flat-headed cat, an endemic of Borneo. 

The flat-headed cat, an endemic of Borneo. 

At this point, many of you may be feeling quite depressed. I know how easy it is to feel like there is nothing you can do to help. Well, what if I told you that there is something you can do right now to save a 385,000 acre chunk of peatland rainforest? That’s right, by heading over to the Rainforest Trust’s website (https://www.rainforesttrust.org/project/saving-stronghold-critically-endangered-bornean-orangutan/) you can donate to their campaign to buy up and protect the Rungan River forest tract.

Click on the logo to learn more!

Click on the logo to learn more!

By donating to the Rainforest Trust, you are doing your part in protecting biodiversity in one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. What’s more, you can rest assured that your money is being used effectively. The Rainforest Trust consistently ranks as one of the top environmental protection charities in the world. Over their nearly three decades of operation, the Rainforest Trust has protected more than 15.7 million acres of land in over 20 countries. Like I said in the beginning, habitat loss is the leading cause of extinction on this planet. Without habitat, we have nothing. Plants are that habitat and by supporting organizations such as the Rainforest Trust, you are doing your part to fight the biggest threats our planet faces. 

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12]

On Dams & Storm Surges

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What would you say if I told you there was a connection between dams and the damage coastal communities are faced with after a storm surge? It may not seem obvious at first but as you will see, plants form a major connection between the two. Now more than ever, our species is dealing with the collective actions of the last few generations. Rare storm events are becoming more and more of a certainty as we head deeper into a future wrought with man-made climate change. The reality of this will only become more apparent for those smart enough to listen. Rivers are complex ecosystems that, like anything else in nature, are dynamic. Changes upstream will manifest themselves in a multitude of ways further downstream.

The idea of a dam is maddeningly brilliant. Much like our cells utilize chemical concentration gradients to produce biological power, we have converged on a similar solution to generate the electricity that powers our modern lives. A wall is built to block a waterway and store massive quantities of water on one side. That water is then forced through a channel where it turns turbines, which generate power. The problem is that the reservoir created to store all of that water drowns out ecosystems and the organisms that rely upon them (including humans). 

 

Here in the United States, we got a little dam crazy in the last few decades. With an estimated 75,000 dams in this country, many of which are obsolete, these structures have had an immense impact. One major issue with dams is the sediment load. As erosion occurs upstream, all of the debris that would normally be washed downstream gets caught behind the dam. Far from merely an engineering issue, a dams nature to trap sediment has some serious ecological impacts as well. 

Until humans came along, all major rivers eventually made their way to the coast. A free flowing river continually brings sediments from far inland, down to the mouth where they build up to form the foundation of coastal wetlands. Vegetation such as sedges, grasses, and mangroves readily take root in these nutrient-rich sediments, creating an amazingly rich and productive ecosystem. Less apparent, however, is the fact that these wetlands provide physical protection.

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Storm surges caused by storms like hurricanes can send tons upon tons of water barreling towards the coast. In places where healthy wetland vegetation is present, these surges are absorbed and much of that water never has a chance to hit the coast. In areas where these wetlands have vanished, there is nothing stopping the full brunt of the surge and we end up with a situation like we saw following Katrina or Sandy and are facing now with Harvey and Irma. Coastal wetlands provide the United States alone with roughly $23 billion in storm protection annually

These wetlands rely on this constant supply of sediment to keep them alive, both literally and figuratively. As anyone who has been to Florida can tell you, erosion is a powerful force that can eat away an entire coastline. Without constant input of sediment, there is nowhere for vegetation to grow and thus coastal wetlands are rapidly eroded away. This is where dams come in. An estimated 970,000 km (600,000 mi) of rivers dammed translates into a lot of sediment not reaching our coasts. The wetlands that rely on these sediments are being starved and are rapidly disappearing as a result. Add to that the fact that coastal developments take much of the rest and we are beginning to see a very bleak future for coastal communities both in the US and around the world. 

Photo Credit: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

America's Trees are Moving West

Understanding how individual species are going to respond to climate change requires far more nuanced discussions than most popular media outlets are willing to cover. Regardless, countless scientists are working diligently on these issues each and every day so that we can attempt to make better conservation decisions. Sometimes they discover that things aren't panning out as expected. Take, for instance, the trees of eastern North America.

Climate change predictions have largely revolved around the idea that in response to warming temperatures, plant species will begin to track favorable climates by shifting their ranges northward. Of course, plants do not migrate as individuals but rather generationally as spores and seeds. As the conditions required for favorable germination and growth shift, the propagules that end up in those newly habitable areas are the ones that will perform the best.

Certainly data exists that demonstrates that this is the case for many plant species. However, a recent analysis of 86 tree species native to eastern North America suggests that predictions of northward migration aren't painting a full picture. Researchers at Purdue University found that a majority of the species they looked at have actually moved westward rather than northward.

Of the trees they looked at, 73% have increased their ranges to the west whereas only 62% have increased their ranges northward. These data span a relatively short period of time between 1980 and 2015, which is even more surprising considering the speed at which these species are moving. The team calculated that they have been expanding westward at a rate of 15.4 km per decade!

These westward shifts have largely occurred in broad-leaf deciduous trees, which got the team thinking about what could be causing this shift. They suspected that this westward movement likely has something to do with changes in precipitation. Midwestern North America has indeed experienced increased average rainfall but still not nearly as much as eastern tree species are used to getting in their historic ranges. Taken together, precipitation only explains a small fraction of the patterns they are observing.

Although a smoking gun still has not been found, the researchers are quick to point out that just because changes in climate can not explain 100% of the data, it nonetheless plays a significant role. It's just that in ecology, we must consider as many factors as possible. Decades of fire suppression ,changes in land use, pest outbreaks, and even conservation efforts must all be factored into the equation.

Our world is changing at an ever-increasing rate. We must do our best to try and understand how these myriad changes are going to influence the species around us. This is especially important for plants as they form the foundation of every major terrestrial ecosystem on this planet. As author John Eastman so eloquently put it "Since plants provide the ultimate power base for all the food and energy chains and webs that hold our natural world together, they also form the hubs of community structure and thus the centers of our focus."

Further Reading:  [1]

Spring Has Sprung Earlier

Phenology is defined as "the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomenon, especially in relation to climate, plant, and animal life." Whether its deciding when to plant certain crops or when to start taking your allergy medication, our lives are intricately tied to such cycles. The study of phenology has other applications as well. By and large, it is one of the best methods we have in understanding the effects of climate change on ecosystems around the globe. 

For plants, phenology can be applied to a variety of things. We use it every time we take note of the first signs of leaf out, the first flowers to open, or the emergence of insect herbivores.  In the temperate zones of the world, phenology plays a considerable role in helping us track the emergence of spring and the onset of fall. As we collect more and more data on how global climates are changing, phenology is confirming what many climate change models have predicted - spring is starting earlier and fall is lasting longer.

Researchers at the USA National Phenology Network have created a series of maps that illustrate the early onset of spring by using decades worth of data on leaf out. Leaf out is controlled by a variety of factors such as the length of chilling temperatures in winter, the rate of heat accumulation in the spring, and photoperiod. Still, for woody species, the timing of leaf out is strongly tied to changes in local climate. And, although it varies from year to year and from species to species, the overall trend has been one in which plants are emerging much earlier than they have in the past.

https://www.usanpn.org/data/spring

For the southern United States, the difference is quite startling. Spring leaf out is happening as much as 20 days earlier than it has in past decades. Stark differences between current and past leaf out dates are called "anomalies" and the 2017 anomaly in the southern United States is one of the most extreme on record.

How this is going to alter ecosystems is hard to predict. The extended growing seasons are likely to increase productivity for many plant species, however, this will also change competitive interactions among species in the long term. Early leaf out also comes with increased risk of frost damage. Cold snaps are still quite possible, especially in February and March, and these can cause serious damage to leaves and branches. Such damage can result in a reduction of productivity for these species.

Changes in leaf out dates are not only going to affect individual species or even just the plants themselves. Changes in natural cycles such as leaf out and flowering can have ramifications across entire landscapes. Mismatches in leaf emergence and insect herbivores, or flowers and pollinators have the potential to alter entire food webs. It is hard to make predictions on exactly how ecosystems are going to respond but what we can say is that things are already changing and they are doing so more rapidly than they have in a very long time. 

For these reasons and so many more, the study of phenology in natural systems is crucial for understanding how the natural world is changing. Although we have impressive amounts of data to draw from, we still have a lot to learn. The great news is that anyone can partake in phenological data collection. Phenology offers many great citizen science opportunities. Anyone and everyone can get involved. You can join the National Phenology Network in their effort to track phenological changes in your neighborhood. Check out this link to learn more: USA National Phenology Network

Further Reading: [1] [2]  

 

High Elevation Record Breakers Are Evidence of Climate Change

A new record has been set for vascular plants. Three mustards, two composits, and a grass have been found growing at an elevation of 20,177 feet (6,150 m) above sea level!

Mountains are a brutal place to live. Freezing temperatures, fierce winds, limited soil, and punishing UV radiation are serious hurdles for any form of life. Whereas algae and mosses can often eke out an existence at such altitudes, more derived forms of life have largely been excluded from such habitats. That is, until now. The area in which these plants were discovered measured about the size of a football field and is situated atop an Indian mountain known as Mount Shukule II.

Although stressed, these plants were nonetheless established among the scree of this menacing peak. Most were quite young, having only been there for a few seasons but growth rings on the roots of at least one plant indicated that it had been growing there for nearly 20 years!

All of them have taken the cushion-like growth habit of most high elevation plant species in order to reduce exposure and conserve water. The leaves of each species also contained high levels of sugary anti-freeze, a must in this bitter cold habitat.

The research team, who could only muster a few hours of work each day, believed that the seeds of these plants were blown up there by wind. Because soils in alpine zones are often non-existent, the team wanted to take a closer look at what kind of microbial community, if any, was associated with their roots.

Whereas no mycorrhizal species were identified, the team did find a complex community of bacteria living among the roots that are characteristic of species living in arid, desert-like regions. It is likely that these bacteria came in with the seeds. Aside from wind, sun, and a lack of soil, one of the other great challenges for these plants is a short growing season. In order to persist at this elevation, the plants require a minimum of 40 days of frost-free soil each year.

Because climate change is happening much faster in mountainous regions, it is likely that such favorable growing conditions are a relatively recent phenomenon. The area in question has only recently become deglaciated. As average yearly temperatures continue to increase, the habitable zone for plants such as these is also moving up the mountain. The question is, what happens when it reaches the top? Once at the peak, plants have nowhere to go. One of the greatest issues alpine plants face is that they will gradually be squeezed off of these habitat islands.

Although expanding habitable zones in these mountains may sound like a good thing, it is likely a short term benefit for most species. Whereas temperature bands in the Tibetan mountains are moving upwards at a rate of 20 feet (6 m) per year, most alpine plants can only track favorable climates at a rate of about 2 inches (0.06 m) per year. In other words, they simply can't keep up. As such, this record breaking discovery is somewhat bitter sweet.

Photo Credit: [1]

Further Reading: [1]

The Evolution of Bulbs

Spring time is bulb time. As the winter gives way to warmer, longer days, some of our most beloved botanical neighbors begin their race for the sun. Functionally speaking, bulbs are storage organs. They are made up of a short stem surrounded by layers of fleshy leaves, which contain plenty of energy to fuel rapid growth. Their ability to maintain dormancy is something most of us will be familiar with.

They are incredibly hardy at this stage. As you might expect, bulbs are an adaptation for short growing seasons. Their ability to rapidly grow shoots gives them an advantage during short periods of time when conditions improve. Despite the energetic costs associated with supplying and maintaining such a relatively large storage organ, the ability to rapidly deploy leaves when conditions become favorable is nonetheless quite advantageous.

Contrast this with rhizomatous species, which are often associated with a life in the understory. Their ambling subterranean habit allows them to vegetatively "explore" for light and nutrients. What's more, the connected rhizomes allow the parent plant to provide nutrients to the developing clones until they grow large enough to support themselves. Under such conditions, bulbs would be at a disadvantage.

Bulbs have evolved independently throughout the angiosperm tree. Many instances of this switch from rhizomatous to bulbous growth habit occurred during the Miocene (23.03 to 5.332 million years ago) and has been associated with a global decrease in temperature and an increase in seasonality at higher latitudes. The decrease in growing season would have favored the evolution of bulbous plants such as those in the lily family. Today, we take advantage of this hardy habit. As such, bulbous species are some of the most common plants used in gardens.

Photo Credit: Pixel Addict (Wikimedia Commons)

Further Reading: [1]
 

Competition in a Warming Climate

As climate change continues unchecked, it may not be warming that threatens sensitive plant communities but rather novel competition. A recent study shows that alpine plant communities can handle warming just fine. Competition from novel plants, however, may prove disastrous for these mountain top communities.

Man-made climate change is real. It's happening and we are witnessing its effects all over the globe. For those concerned with the state of the natural world, it is easy to get caught up in the warming aspect. What are the effects of an overall increase in global temperatures? Certainly this is worth fretting over. However, evidence is painting a more subtle picture of exactly how ecosystems are going to respond.

Plants are predicted to track climates. As climate zones shift, plants are "migrating" to keep up. They don't do this by physically moving of course, but rather via seed. As habitats begin to change, new species will inevitably move in. For alpine communities, this means species from farther down the mountain. To simulate this, researchers transplanted alpine plant species down the mountain where their proposed future competitors grow in a climate that is on average 3 degrees warmer.

In the absence of novel competitors, the alpine plants performed just fine. Competition was not significantly different then when they were grown at current temperature regimes among their current competitors. However, when novel competitors from farther down the mountain were present, everything changed. The alpine species fared much worse in this situation. Though warming by itself was not significant, warming coupled with novel competitors spelled disaster for alpine communities. As the authors make sure to point out "changing biotic interactions appear more important than direct physiological effects of warming temperature."

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading:
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature14952.html