Saving One of North America's Rarest Shrubs

Arctostaphylos_franciscana_3.jpg

The chance to save a species from certain extinction cannot be wasted. When the opportunity presents itself, I believe it is our duty to do so. Back in 2010, such an opportunity presented itself to the state of California and what follows is a heroic demonstration of the lengths dedicated individuals will go to protect biodiversity. Thought to be extinct for 60 years, the Franciscan manzanita (Arctostaphylos franciscana) has been given a second chance at life on this planet.

California is known the world over for its staggering biodiversity. Thanks to a multitude of factors that include wide variations in soil and climate types, California boasts an amazing variety of plant life. Some of the most Californian of these plants belong to a group of shrubs and trees collectively referred to as 'manzanitas.' These plants are members of the genus Arctostaphylos, which hails from the family Ericaceae, and sport wonderful red bark, small green leaves, and lovely bell-shaped flowers. Of the approximately 105 species, subspecies, and varieties of manzanita known to science, 95 of them can be found growing in California.

It has been suggested that manzanitas as a whole are a relatively recent taxon, having arisen sometime during the Middle Miocene. This fact complicates their taxonomy a bit because such a rapid radiation has led manzanita authorities to recognize a multitude of subspecies and varieties. In California, there are also many endemic species that owe their existence in part to the state's complicated geologic history. Some of these manzanitas are exceedingly rare, having only been found growing in one or a few locations. Sadly, untold species were probably lost as California was settled and human development cleared the land. 

Such was the case for the Franciscan manzanita. Its discovery dates back to the late 1800's. California botanist and manzanita expert, Alice Eastwood, originally collected this plant on serpentine soils around the San Francisco Bay Area. In the years following, the growing human population began putting lots of pressure on the surrounding landscape.

Arctostaphylos_franciscana_-_Regional_Parks_Botanic_Garden,_Berkeley,_CA_-_DSC04529.jpg

Botanists like Eastwood recognized this and went to work doing what they could to save specimens from the onslaught of bulldozers. Luckily, the Franciscan manzanita was one such species. A few individuals were dug up, rooted, and their progeny were distributed to various botanical gardens. By the 1940's, the last known wild population of Franciscan manzanita were torn up and replaced by the unending tide of human expansion into the Bay Area.

It was apparent that the Franciscan manzanita was gone for good. Nothing was left of its original populations outside of botanical gardens. It was officially declared extinct in the wild. Decades went by without much thought for this plant outside of a few botanical circles. All of that changed in 2009.

It was in 2009 when a project began to replace a stretch of roadway called Doyle Drive. It was a massive project and a lot of effort was invested to remove the resident vegetation from the site before work could start in earnest. Native vegetation was salvaged to be used in restoration projects but most of the clearing involved the removal of aggressive roadside trees. A chipper was brought in to turn the trees into wood chips. Thanks to a bit of serendipity, a single area of vegetation bounded on all sides by busy highway was spared from wood chip piles. Apparently the only reason for this was because a patrol car had been parked there during the chipping operation.

Cleared of tall, weedy trees, this small island of vegetation had become visible by road for the first time in decades. That fall, a botanist by the name of Daniel Gluesenkamp was driving by the construction site when he noticed an odd looking shrub growing there. Luckily, he knew enough about manzanitas to know something was different about this shrub. Returning to the site with fellow botanists, Gluesenkamp and others confirmed that this odd shrubby manzanita was in fact the sole surviving wild Franciscan manzanita. Needless to say, this caused a bit of a stir among conservationists.

median arc.JPG

The shrub had obviously been growing in that little island of serpentine soils for quite some time. The surrounding vegetation had effectively concealed its presence from the hustle and bustle of commuters that crisscross this section of on and off ramps every day. Oddly enough, this single plant likely owes its entire existence to the disturbance that created the highway in the first place. Manzanitas lay down a persistent seed bank year after year and those seeds can remain dormant until disturbance, usually fire but in this case road construction, awakens them from their slumber. It is likely that road crews had originally disturbed the serpentine soils just enough that this single Franciscan manzanita was able to germinate and survive.

The rediscovery of the last wild Franciscan manzanita was bitter sweet. On the one hand, a species thought extinct for 60 years had been rediscovered. On the other hand, this single individual was extremely stressed by years of noxious car exhaust and now, the sudden influx of sunlight due to the removal of the trees that once sheltered it. What's more, this small island of vegetation was doomed to destruction due to current highway construction. It quickly became apparent that if this plant had any chance of survival, something drastic had to be done.

Many possible rescue scenarios were considered, from cloning the plant to moving bits of it into botanical gardens. In the end, the most heroic option was decided on - this single Franciscan manzanita was going to be relocated to a managed natural area with a similar soil composition and microclimate.

Moving an established shrub is not easy, especially when that particular individual is already stressed to the max. As such, numerous safeguards were enacted to preserve the genetic legacy of this remaining wild individual just in case it did not survive the ordeal. Stem cuttings were taken so that they could be rooted and cloned in a lab. Rooted branches were cut and taken to greenhouses to be grown up to self-sustaining individuals. Numerous seeds were collected from the surprising amount of ripe fruits present on the shrub that year. Finally, soil containing years of this Franciscan manzanita's seedbank as well as the microbial community associated with the roots, were collected and stored to help in future reintroduction efforts.

A fran rescue.JPG

Finally, the day came when the plant was to be dug up and moved. Trenches were dug around the root mass and a dozen metal pipes were driven into the soil 2 feet below the plant so that the shrub could safely be separated from the soil in which it had been growing all its life. These pipes were then bolted to I-beams and a crane was used to hoist the manzanita up and out of the precarious spot that nurtured it in secret for all those years.

Upon arriving at its new home, experts left nothing to chance. The shrub was monitored daily for the first ten days of its arrival followed by continued weekly visits after that. As anyone that gardens knows, new plantings must be babied a bit before they become established.  For over a year, this single shrub was sheltered from direct sun, pruned of any dead and sickly branches, and carefully weeded to minimize competition. Amazingly, thanks to the coordinated effort of conservationists, the state of California, and road crews, this single individual lives on in the wild.

Of course, one single individual is not enough to save this species from extinction. At current, cuttings, and seeds provide a great starting place for further reintroduction efforts. Similarly, and most importantly, a bit of foresight on the part of a handful of dedicated botanists nearly a century ago means that the presence of several unique genetic lines of this species living in botanical gardens means that at least some genetic variability can be introduced into the restoration efforts of the Franciscan manzanita.

In an ideal world, conservation would never have to start with a single remaining individual. As we all know, however, this is not an ideal world. Still, this story provides us with inspiration and a sense of hope that if we can work together, amazing things can be done to preserve and restore at least some of what has been lost. The Franciscan manzanita is but one species that desperately needs our help an attention. It is a poignant reminder to never give up and to keep working hard on protecting and restoring biodiversity.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]

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

 

Saving Bornean Peatlands is a Must For Conservation

Borneo_rainforest.jpg

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.

Logging_road_East_Kalimantan_2005.jpg
5551935164_127180a252_b.jpg

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.

Phalaenopsis_bellina_Orchi_01.jpg

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.

Paphiopedilum_philippinense_Orchi_021.jpg

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.

Peat_Forest_Swamp_(10712654875).jpg

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.

Headhunter's_trail_Mulu_N._bicalcarata_3.jpg
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.

Pongo_tapanuliensis_female.jpg
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]

Herbarium Biases

Humans carry countless biases with them wherever they go. Even the logical mind of a scientist is no stranger to prejudice. Identifying such biases in the way we do science is key to improving the discipline and, as computing power and access to big data increases, we are gaining a better understanding of just how prevalent our biases really are. A recent study that looked at herbarium collections around the world aims to do just that.

With herbaria closing shop around the globe, the need to digitize collections has never been more urgent. Although more and more collections are finding their way into digital libraries, a vast majority of herbarium collections risk being lost forever. This alone represents a major bias. Such organismal science has sadly been scoffed at in recent decades. Still, enough collections have been entered into databases that interesting patterns are starting to emerge. A team of researchers recently took a closer look at roughly 5 million digitized floras representing the most complete digital floras from Australia, South Africa, and New England.

In doing so, the team was able to find some startling biases in these collections. They broke them down into a handful of categories with the hope that botanists and ecologists can start to improve on these gaps over the coming decades. Although the floras they examined by no means represent anything close to a complete picture of our floristic understanding of the world, they nonetheless mirror issues that are sure to crop up no matter where collections have been made.

The first major category is that of spatial or geographic bias. This occurs whenever specimens are collected at a higher frequency in one place over another. There are likely many reasons for this - ease of access, proximity to research institutions, just to name a few. The team found that herbarium collections tended to occur in the same areas through time. What's more, they tended to occur more often near roads with a surprising 50% of specimens collected within 2 km of a roadside. This can result in a highly skewed perspective of the kind of taxa represented in a region. Roadside vegetation is comprised of species capable of dealing with runoff, soil compaction, and pollution, and is likely depauperate of taxa less able to handle such conditions. They also found a elevational bias, with a majority of specimens having been collected below 500 meters. 

Maps demonstration spatial biases in herbarium collections. Those in red have more collections and those in blue have fewer collections.

Maps demonstration spatial biases in herbarium collections. Those in red have more collections and those in blue have fewer collections.

The second major category is that of temporal bias. This occurs whenever specimens are collected more frequently during certain parts of the year over others. The team found that collections disproportionately occurred during spring and summer months. As anyone who hikes can tell you, there is a lot of variation among plant communities from season to season and any good collection should sample a location multiple times a year. In addition to seasonal biases, the team also found extreme biases in terms of history. Collections in South Africa and Australia started to rise shortly after World War II and peaked in the 1980's and 1990's respectively. Compare this to New England where peak collections occurred nearly 100 years prior. If we are to track long term trends and changes in the flora of various regions, collections need to occur far more regularly. Obviously institutions have shied away from such investigations in recent decades. Only public interest and funding can reverse such trends, hopefully not before it is too late.

The third major bias they found is that of trait bias. This occurs whenever a collector specifically aims for species with a certain life history characteristic (annual vs. perennial, woody vs. herbacious) as well as species of conservation concern. Indeed, the team found that perennial species were over-represented in most herbarium collections. Also, gramminoids dominated herbarium collections in Australia and South Africa whereas herbs and trees were over-represented in New England. Another interesting pattern that emerged is that short plants had higher representation in harbaria than taller species. Obviously this has a lot to do with ease of collection.

Another pattern that emerged which is of conservation concern is that threatened or endangered species are severely under-represented in herbarium collections. Although care must be taken to not over-collect species whose numbers are dwindling, their lack of representation in herbarium collections can seriously hinder conservation efforts. Such under-represenation can lead to erroneous estimations of species abundances and distributions. It can also hinder our understanding of plant community dynamics.

The fourth major bias is that of phylogenetic bias. Certain clades are more sought after than others. This leads to a disproportionate amount of showy or valuable species turning up in herbaria around the globe. It also leads to an over-representation of potentially "useful" plant species in terms of things like medicines or dyes. This leaves a large portion of regional floras under-sampled. This in turn exacerbates issues relating to our understanding of plant community dynamics and the change in plant abundance and distribution through time.

Finally, the fifth major bias is that of collector bias. This pattern stems from the fact that in all the regions sampled for this study, a majority of the collections were made by only a handful of individuals. This means that all of these collections are the products of the habits and preferences of these collectors. Some collectors may favor sampling the entire flora of a region whereas others may favor certain clades over others. Similarly, some collectors may favor plants with interesting physiologies whereas other may favor plants with peculiar life-histories such as carnivores or succulents.

The use and importance of herbaria has changed a lot over the last two centuries. Whereas they largely started out as a tool for taxonomists, the utility of herbarium collections has since expanded into areas that were never thought possible. With the advent of new technologies, who knows what the future holds. Of course, this means nothing if interest and support for herbarium collections continues to decline. Their utility in the context of research and conservation cannot be understated. We need herbaria now more than ever. Understanding biases is a great step towards improving the discipline. We must aim to improve collections in these so-called cold spots and to avoid as many biases as possible in doing so.

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading: [1]

 

The Longleaf Pine: A Champion of the Coastal Plain

As far as habitat types are concerned, the longleaf pine savannas of southeastern North America are some of the most stunning. What's more, they are also a major part of one of the world's great biodiversity hotspots. Sadly, they are disappearing fast. Agriculture and other forms of development are gobbling up the southeast coastal plain at a bewildering rate. For far too long we have ignored, or at the very least, misunderstood these habitats. Today I would like to give a brief introduction to the longleaf pine and the habitat it creates.

The longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) is an impressive species. Capable of reaching heights of 100 feet or more, it towers over a landscape that boggles the mind. It is a landscape born of fire, of which the long leaf pine is supremely adapted to dealing with. These pines start out life quite differently than other pines. Seedlings do not immediately reach for the canopy. Instead, young long leaf pines spend their first few years looking more like a grass than a tree. Lasting anywhere between 5 to 12 years, the grass stage of development gives the young tree a chance to save up energy before it makes any attempt at vertical growth. 

The reason for this is fire. If young long leaf pines were to start their canopy race immediately, they would very likely be burned to death before they grew big enough to escape the harmful effects of fire. Instead, the sensitive growing tip is safely tucked away in the dense needle clusters. If a fire burns through the area only the tips of the needles will be scorched, leaving the rest of the tree safe and sound. During this stage, the tree is busy putting down an impressive root system. The taproot alone can reach depths of 6 to 9 feet!

Once a hardy root system has been formed and enough energy has been acquired, young longleaf pines go through a serious growth spurt. Starting in later winter or early spring, the grass-like tuft will put up a white growth tip called a candle. This tip shoots upwards quite rapidly, growing a few feet in only a couple of months. This is sometimes referred to as the bottlebrush phase because no horizontal branches are formed during this time. The goal at this point is to get the sensitive growing tip as far away from the ground as possible so as to avoid damaging fires. It is fun to encounter long leaf pines at this stage because like any young adult, they look a bit awkward.

Photo Credit: Woodlot - Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Woodlot - Wikimedia Commons

Once the tree reaches about 6 to 10 feet in height, it will finally begin to produce horizontal branches. This doesn't stop its canopy bid, however, as it still will put on upwards of 3 feet of vertical growth each year! Every year its bark grows thicker and thicker, thus each year it becomes more and more resistant to fire. Far from being a force to cope with, fire unwittingly gives longleaf pines a helping hand by clearing the habitat of potential competitors that are less adapted to dealing with burns. After about 30 years of growth, longleaf pines reach maturity and will start to produce fertile cones.

Before European settlement, longleaf pine savanna covered roughly 90,000,000 acres of southeastern North America. Clearing and development have reduced that to a mere 5% of its former glory. For far too long its coastal plain habitat was thought to be a flat, monotonous region created by early human burning in the last few thousand years. We now know how untrue those assumptions are. Sure, the region is flat but it is anything but monotonous. Additionally, the coastal plain is one of the most lightning prone regions in North America. Fires would have been a regular occurrence long before any humans ever got there. 

Red indicates forest loss between 2011 and 2014. http://glad.umd.edu/gladmaps

Evidence suggests that this coastal plain habitat has remained relatively stable for the last 62,000 years. As such, it is full of unique species. Surveys of the southeastern coastal plain have revealed multiple centers of plant endemism, rivaled in North America only by the southern Appalachian Mountains. In fact, taken together, the coastal plain forests are widely considered one of the world's biodiversity hotspots! Of the 62,000 vascular plants found in these forests, 1,816 species (29.3%) are endemic. Its not just plants either. Roughly 1,400 species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals rely on the coast plain forests for survival.

Luckily, we are starting to wake up to the fact that we are losing one of the world's great biodiversity hotspots. Efforts are being put forth in order to conserve and restore at least some of what has been lost. Still, the forests of southeastern North America are disappearing at an alarming rate. Despite comprising only 2% of the world's forest cover, the southern forests are being harvested to supply 12% of the world's wood products. This is simply not sustainable. If nothing is done to slow this progress, the world stands to lose yet another biodiversity hotspot. 

If this sounds as bad to you as it does to me then you probably want to do something. Please check out what organizations such as The Longleaf Alliance, Partnership For Southern Forestland Conservation, The Nature Conservancy, and The National Wildlife Federation are doing to protect this amazing region. Simply click the name of the organization to find out more.

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] 

The Fall of Corncockle

This switch from more traditional farming practices to industrialized monocultures has left a damaging legacy on ecosystems around the globe. This is especially true for unwanted plants. Species that once grew in profusion are now sprayed and tilled out of existence. Nowhere has this been better illustrated than for a lovely little plant known commonly as the corncockle (Agrostemma githago). 

This species was once a common weed in European wheat fields. Throughout much of the 19th and early 20th century, it was likely that most wheat sold contained a measurable level of corncockle seed. Its pink flowers would have juxtaposed heavily against the amber hue of grain. Indeed, its habit of associating with wheat has lead to its introduction around the globe. It can now be found growing throughout parts of North America, Australia, and New Zealand. 

However, in its home range of Europe, the corncockle isn't doing so well. The industrialization of farming dealt a huge blow to corncockle ecology. The broad-scale application of herbicides wreaked havoc on corncockle populations. Much more detrimental was the switch to winter wheat, which caused a decoupling between harvest time and seed set for the corncockle. Whereas it once synced quite nicely with regular wheat harvest, winter wheat is harvested before corncockle can set seed. As such, corncockle has become extremely rare throughout its native range and was even thought to be extinct in the UK. 

A discovery in 2014 changed all of that. National Trust assistant ranger Dougie Holden found a single plant flowering near a lighthouse. Extensive use of field guides and keys confirmed that this plant was indeed a corncockle, the first seen blooming in the UK in many decades. It is likely that the sole plant grew from seed churned up by vehicle traffic the season before. 

Photo Credit: sonnentau (bit.ly/1qo3XQK)

Further Reading:
Clapham, A.R., Tutin, T.G. and Warburg, E.F. 1968. Excursion Flora of the British Isles. Cambridge University Press

Why You Should Never Buy Cypress Mulch

Gardening season is soon to be underway here in the northern hemisphere. This past weekend saw droves of people taking advantage of the nice weather by getting their hands dirty in the garden. A walk around the neighborhood brought with it a lot of smiles and a chance to reconnect with neighbors I haven't talked to in a while but it also brought with it something sinister. Lingering in the air was the scent of cypress mulch. Tons upon tons of it are being spread over gardens everywhere. One might ask "Whats the problem? Cypress mulch is more durable and more insect resistant than other mulches!"

WRONG!

Anymore today, these ideas are leftovers of a long gone era. Back when old growth cypress forests were still a thing, these centuries old trees did impart rot and pest resistance into their wood. Today, this is not the case. Because logging has taken most of the old growth cypress from places like Florida and Louisiana, mulch companies have had to resort to cutting down and mulching young, second and third growth cypress stands. Barely given the time to grow into the towering specimens their parents and grandparents once were, these young trees have not yet imparted the centuries worth of compounds into their wood that keep them from rotting and deter insect predators.

The saddest part of the cypress mulch industry is that they are destroying valuable and irreplaceable habitat for the myriad lifeforms that rely on cypress swamps for their existence. To add insult to injury, recovery of cypress trees is almost negligible anymore today due to the way we have managed our waterways. Cypress seedlings require inundation by freshwater and regular silt deposition in order to successfully germinate. A century of flood control, inundation by brackish water, as well as dam and ship canal building have completely upset this dynamic. Now, instead of building new habitat for cypress swamps, these sediments are washed away, far out into the Gulf of Mexico.

What staggeringly few people seem to care to realize is that cypress swamps are our first line of defense against hurricanes. Cypress swamps can cut the force of a storm surge by 90%. It has been estimated that the cypress swamps in Louisiana alone are worth a staggering $6.7 billion in storm protection every year. That is a lot of cash, people!

As with any other industry, the cypress mulch companies are driven by consumer demand. The simple act of individuals, communities, and local governments not purchasing this nasty product is all it will take to lessen the blow to these precious habitats. At the rate cypress is being cut, it will not take long for us to exhaust the resource entirely. As you are looking to do some gardening this year, and many years into the future, please keep these great trees in mind and stop buying cypress mulch. In lieu of wood and bark mulches, you should consider using shredded leaves from your property instead. They make excellent mulch and being locally sourced, the reduce the chances of introducing disease and other pests to your landscape. In the words of Captain Planet, "the power is yours!"

Photo Credit: Jesse Reeder (http://bit.ly/1wmQpn8)

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]






 

The Truth About Coffee

Mmm mmm coffee. This wonderful elixir has taken over the world. Though individual tastes and preferences vary, there is no denying that most folks who turn to coffee enjoy its effects as a stimulant. Many an In Defense of Plants post has been written in a coffee-fueled frenzy. Even as I write this piece, I am taking breaks to sip on a warm mug of the stuff. Coffee has plenty of proponents as well as its fair share of nay sayers but the health effects don't really concern me much. Today I would rather talk with you about the shrubs that are behind all of this. 

The coffee we drink comes from a handful of shrubs in the genus Coffea. Native to parts of Africa, these shrubs are distant relatives of plants like buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and the bedstraws (Galium sp.). The "beans" that we brew coffee from are not beans at all but rather a type of pit or stone found in the center of a bright red berry. Before they are roasted, the "beans" are actually green. Plants in this genus produce an alkaloid compound known as caffeine. Though it may seem strange, the purpose of caffeine is not to stimulate the human nervous system (though it is a wonderful side effect) but rather it is produced as a defense mechanism for the plant. Making this compound is a complex process that involves many metabolic steps within the tissues of the plant. There are certain factions out there who would like to argue that this is proof against evolution but, as always, evidence seems to be the downfall of their argument. 

Creationists will tell you that the adaptations we see throughout the living world are too complex to have happened by accident. In reality, there is a vast amount of evidence that disputes this. Caffeine is one such example. It has evolved independently multiple times in many different plant lineages. Looking at the genome of coffee, researchers at the University at Buffalo (my alma mater) found that the genes involved in the synthesis of caffeine did not arise all at once. Instead, the genes duplicated multiple times throughout the history of this genus with each duplication coding for another step in the process of producing the caffeine molecule. The interesting part is that each step of this evolutionary process produced a chemical that was itself useful to the plant. The precursor compounds are bitter and toxic to the kinds of animals that like to nibble on the plant. 

As it turns out, the benefits that the plants get from caffeine aren't restricted to defense either. Coffee, as well as other flowering plants such as citrus, produce small amounts of caffeine in their nectar. Researchers at Arizona State University found that bees were 3 times more likely to remember a flowers scent when there was caffeine in the nectar than if there wasn't. This serves a great benefit to the plant producing it because it means that its flowers are much more likely to get pollinated. As it turns out, humans aren't the only species that enjoys a good buzz from caffeine.

Before we get too excited over coffee, we must remember that is definitely has its downside. Worldwide, we humans drink roughly 2.25 billion cups of the stuff every day. In order to produce that much coffee, humans have turned somewhere around 11 million hectares of land into coffee plantations. This has come at an extreme cost to the environment. Also, being a tropical species, the types of habitat used to grow coffee were once lush, tropical rain forests. A majority of coffee consumed around the world is produced in monocultures. Where there once stood towering trees and a lush understory is now an open, chemically-laden field of coffee shrubs. There is hope, however, and it is rising in popularity. 

If you enjoy coffee as much as I do, you should certainly consider switching over to shade grown coffee. I have attached a fair amount of literature at the bottom of this post but the long story short of it is that growing coffee is much less harmful to the environment when it is grown in a forest rather than open plantations. The structural complexity of shade grown coffee farms allows a greater diversity of plant and animal species to coexist with one another. Species diversity and richness are significantly higher on shade grown farms than on open field plantations. 

So, there you have it. Coffee is as complex as it is interesting. We humans are simply lucky to have stumbled across a plant that interacts with our brain chemistry in wonderful ways. Certainly coffee has benefitted in the long run. 

Photo Credit: Ria Tan (http://bit.ly/1pFQD1J)

Further Reading:
http://www.sciencemag.org/content/345/6201/1181.full

https://asunews.asu.edu/20130307_beesandcaffeine


http://s.si.edu/1o6wOaj

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120807101357.htm

http://bit.ly/1S6dLVV

Screw Pines, Volcanism, and Diamonds

The association between geology and botany has always fascinated me. The closer you look, the more you can't separate the two. Rocks and minerals influence soil characteristics, which in turn influences which plant species will grow and where, which in turn influences soil properties. Take for instance the case of kimberlite.

Kimberlite is a volcanic rock whose origin is quite intense. Kimberlite is found in the form of large vertical columns, often referred to as pipes. They are the result of some seriously explosive volcanism. Intense heat and pressure builds deep within the mantle until it explodes upward, forming a column of this igneous rock. 

Over long spans of time, these pipes begin to weather and erode. This results in soil that is rich in minerals like magnesium, potassium, and phosphorous. As anyone who gardens can tell you, these are the ingredients of many fertilizers. In Africa where these sorts of pipes are well known, there is a species of plant that seems to take advantage of these conditions. 

It has been coined Pandanus candelabrum and it belongs to a group of plants called the screw pines. They aren't true pines but are instead a type of angiosperm. Now, the taxonomy of the genus Pandanus is a bit shaky. Systematics within the family as a whole has largely been based on fragmentary materials such as fruits and flowers. What's more, for much of its taxonomic history, each new collection was largely regarded as a new species. You might be asking why this is important. The answer has something to do with the kimberlite P. candelabrum grows upon. 

There is something other than explosive volcanic activity that makes kimberlite famous. It is mostly known for containing diamonds. In a 2015 paper, geologist Stephen E. Haggerty made this connection between P. candelabrum and kimberlite. As far as anyone can tell, the plant is a specialist on this soil type. As such, prospectors are now using the presence of this plant as a sort of litmus test for finding diamond deposits. This is why I think taxonomy becomes important. 

If P. candelabrum turns out not to be a unique species but rather a variation then perhaps this discovery doesn't mean much for the genus as a whole. However, if it turns out that P. candelabrum is a truly unique species then this new-found association with diamond-rich rocks may spell disaster. Mining for diamonds is a destructive process and if every population of P. candelabrum signals the potential for diamonds, then the future of this species lies in the balance of how much our species loves clear, shiny chunks of carbon. A bit unsettling if you ask me. 

Photo Credit: to.pbs.org/1NQUXqU

Further Reading:
http://econgeol.geoscienceworld.org/content/110/4/851.full