What the Past Can Tell Us About the Future: Notes from Crossing the Palaeontological – Ecological Gap

Post provided by Karen Bacon

I had the pleasure of delivering one of the plenary talks at the first (hopefully of many) Crossing the Palaeontological – Ecological Gap meeting held in the University of Leeds on August 30th and 31st. I’m a geologist and a botanist, so this is a topic that’s close to my heart and my professional interests.

How Palaeoecology Can Help Us Today

©Gail Hampshire

©Gail Hampshire

As we move into an ecologically uncertain future with pressures of climate change, land-use change and resource limitations, the fossil record offers the only truly long-term record of how Earth’s ecosystems respond to major environmental upheaval driven by climate change events. The fossil record is, of course, not without its problems – there are gaps, not everything fossilises in the same way or numbers, and comparisons to today’s ecology are extremely difficult.  It’s these difficulties (and other challenges) that make the uniting of palaeontology and ecology essential to fully address how plants, animals and other organisms have responded to major changes in the past. Perhaps uniting them could give us an idea of what to expect in our near-term future, as carbon dioxide levels return to those not previously experienced on Earth since the Pliocene, over 2 million years ago. Continue reading

Issue 9.2

Issue 9.2 is now online!

The February issue of Methods is now online!

This double-size issue contains six Applications articles (one of which is Open Access) and two Open Access research articles. These eight papers are freely available to everyone, no subscription required.

 Temperature Manipulation: Welshofer et al. present a modified International Tundra Experiment (ITEX) chamber design for year-round outdoor use in warming taller-stature plant communities up to 1.5 m tall.This design is a valuable tool for examining the effects of in situ warming on understudied taller-stature plant communities

 ZoonThe disjointed nature of the current species distribution modelling (SDM) research environment hinders evaluation of new methods, synthesis of current knowledge and the dissemination of new methods to SDM users. The zoon R package aims to overcome these problems by providing a modular framework for constructing reproducible SDM workflows.

 BEIN R Package: The Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN) database comprises an unprecedented wealth of cleaned and standardised botanical data. The bien r package allows users to access the multiple types of data in the BIEN database. This represents a significant achievement in biological data integration, cleaning and standardisation.

Continue reading

Can We Really Measure Habitat Condition From Space?

Post provided by Tom Harwood, Randall Donohue, Simon Ferrier, Tim McVicar, Graeme Newell, Matt White and Kristen Williams

Remotely sensing can see patterns of land cover, but how do we use this information to quantify human impact on biodiversity?

Remotely sensing can see patterns of land cover, but how do we use this information to quantify human impact on biodiversity? ©NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team

It’s very hard to make sensible choices without sensible information. When it comes to actions around changing land use and its ecological impact though, this is often what we are forced to do. If we want to reduce the impact of human activities on natural ecosystems, we need to know how much change has already occurred and how altered an ecosystem might be from its “natural” state.

Working out which parts of the landscape have been changed and mapping the absence of natural vegetation is an achievable (though onerous) task. However, moving beyond this binary view of the world is a huge challenge. Pretty much all habitat has been modified by human influences to some extent – by, for example, wood extraction, the introduction of invasive species or livestock grazing. This means that a lot of the apparently native habitat is no longer capable of supporting its full complement of native biodiversity. Continue reading

CO2 Efflux Rates from Dead Organic Matter: Get It Right

Post provided by GBADAMASSI DOSSA

Anthropocene and Climate Change at Glance

As a consequence of human activities the global climate is changing at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the past few centuries, leading to the suggestion that this era should be referred to as the “Anthropocene”. While climate hind-casting and pollen histories in sediments are advancing our understanding of how past ecological ecosystems responded to previous climate changes, forecasting power really depends on how accurately we can predict ecosystem functions that are likely to change in the future.

Despite substantial recent advances in our ability to predict climate change, considerable uncertainty remains – especially in our understanding of how ecosystem functioning could be influenced by climate change and how this may feed back to affect greenhouse-gas fluxes. The decomposition of organic matter in leaf litter and soils accounts for a global flux that is approximately 7 times as large as global anthropogenic emissions. Understanding how climate change will affect carbon held in dead organic matter pools – including leaf litter, woody debris and soil organic carbon – is essential.

Decomposition and Why it Matters

Carbon cycle summary. Note this focuses only in forested or terrestrial ecosystem.

Carbon cycle summary. Note this focuses only in forested or terrestrial ecosystem.

Decomposition is defined as the “physical, chemical and biological mechanisms that transform organic matter into increasingly stable forms” in plant detritus. However, only small part of carbon goes through this process. Most of dead organic matter becomes CO2. Decomposition of organic matter is important because of its link to the global carbon cycle. Simply stated, the carbon cycle consists of carbon inputs via photosynthesis and outputs via respiration. However, while photosynthesis is relatively well studied and understood, respiration – including that of living organisms (autotrophy) and of dead ones (heterotrophy) – is understudied. As a consequence, our understanding of decomposition is much less sophisticated. A substantial amount of greenhouse-gas (CO2, CH4, N2O) production occurs either directly or indirectly from organic matter decomposition, including woody debris. Similar amounts of CO2 efflux exist between fluxes from woody debris decomposition (8.6 Pg yr-1) and fossil fuel burning (9.6 Pg yr-1). So we desperately need a reliable technique to quantify CO2 from decomposition. Continue reading

Disentangling Ecosystem Functions: Our Imagination is the Limit

Post supplied by Tomas Roslin and Eleanor Slade (SPATIAL FOODWEB ECOLOGY GROUP, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD & LANCASTER UNIVERSITY)

Studies of Action

Studies of ecosystem function are studies of action: of insects pollinating flowers, of predators killing pests – and in our case (well, more often than not) of beetles disposing of dung. To isolate the effects of the critters that we think will matter, we need to selectively include or exclude them. If we think a particular species or species group is responsible for a certain function, then we test this by keeping it in or out of enclosures. If we want to look at effects of species diversity, then we create communities of different species richness.

Research on dung beetles is far from boring. © Kari Heliövaara.

Research on dung beetles is far from boring. © Kari Heliövaara.

Depending on the target organism, this is sometimes easy and sometimes difficult. But it almost invariably proves to be fun! We enjoy the challenge of inventing new techniques for unravelling ecosystem functions sustained by insects. Working on dung beetles – as we tend to do – can be messy, but it’s definitely never boring.

In targeting ecosystem functions, the real trick is to make the experiments relevant. What we want to understand are the effects of changes occurring in the real world. All too often studies of ecosystem functions have been focused on artificial species pools in artificial settings. To see how we have solved this, we’ll give you a quick look at our dungy portfolio of approaches to date. Continue reading

Building a Better Indicator

Post Provided by Charlie Outhwaite & Nick Isaac

Nick and Charlie are giving a presentation on ‘Biodiversity Indicators from Occurrence Records’ at the BES Annual Meeting on Wednesday 16 December at 13:30 in Moorfoot Hall. Charlie will also be presenting a poster on Tuesday 15 December between 17:00 and 18:30 on ‘Monitoring the UK’s less well-studied species using biological records‘ in the Lennox Suite.

Biodiversity Indicators are some of the most important tools linking ecological data with government policy. Indicators need to summarise large amounts of information in a format that is accessible to politicians and the general public. The primary use of indicators is to monitor progress towards environmental targets. For the UK, a suite of indicators are produced annually which are used to monitor progress towards the Aichi targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity as well as for European Union based commitments.  However, this is complicated by the fact that biodiversity policy within the UK is devolved to each of the four nations, so additional indicators have been developed to monitor the commitments of each country.

© Dave Colliers

© Dave Colliers

A range of biodiversity indicators exist within this suite covering the five strategic goals of the Convention; which include addressing the causes of biodiversity loss, reducing pressures on biodiversity and improving status of biodiversity within the UK. Within strategic goal C (improve status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity) there are currently 11 “State” indicators that use species data to monitor progress towards the targets underlying this goal. Most existing species based indicators use abundance data from large scale monitoring schemes with systematic protocols. However, there are other sources of data, such as occurrence records, that can offer an alternative if they are analysed using the appropriate methods. This post will discuss the development of species indicators for occurrence records to complement the current UK species based indicators, specifically relating to the C4b priority species indicator and the D1c pollinators indicator. Continue reading