Eelgrass, a species of valuable seagrass

Seagrass
Eelgrass –Zostera marina – is a seagrass. Seagrasses grow in shallow waters along coasts. Seagrass beds represent, some say, the third most valuable ecosystem, after estuaries and wetlands. Seagrasses also support a most endearing, but vulnerable mammal, the Dugong or Sea Cow (Dugong dugon).

Most people are aware of marine organisms conquering dry land in the course of evolution, with the fish going on land and developing legs out of fins the most popular image. Hundred million years ago, terrestrial grasses did it the other way around. From land they went back to the sea. This happened three more times, involving different species, resulting today in a number of marine flowering plants that are grouped together as seagrasses. ‘Seagrass’ is not a taxonomic term, but denotes an ecological group: plants that share the same characteristic of spending their whole life – including flowering, fruiting, and germination – under water. That sets them apart from all other marine plants.

Zostera marina
a marine flowering plant

Taxonomy of Z. marina

Zostera marina is such a seagrass. It is widespread, occurring along the shores of northern America, Europe and Asia, all in northern latitudes. Other Zostera species (there are sixteen) occur also in southern latitudes, and the genus Zostera is circumglobal, except for Latin America and on the western side of the African continent.

Zostera marina (illustration downloaded from delta-intkey.com).

Because of its widespread distribution, the species is richly endowed with names. In English it is known as eelgrass, common eelgrass, narrow-leaved eelgrass, seawrack, or seagrass. Other vernacular names (listed in the World Register of Marine Species) include Обикновена морска трева (Bulgarian); groot zeegras, gewoon zeegras (Dutch); zostère (French); ზღვის ბალახი (Georgian); gemeines Seegras, echtes Seegras (German); smalålegras, ålegras (Norwegian); zostera morska (Polish); miliúrach, milfhéarach, miléarach chaol,miléarach (Scottish Gaelic); smal bandtång, bandtång (Swedish); gwellt-y-gamlas culddail (Welsh). A partially overlapping list in he Encyclopedia of Life records 33 common names.

Z. marina can be found in bays, lagoons, estuaries, and on beaches. Its leaves can grow up to over a meter. It anchors itself with a root system that spreads out, a rhizome. It reproduces sexually and produces fruit, called a nutlet. It can also reproduce vegetatively by sprouting from its rhizome. In this way it can form a meadow-like colony on the seabed, called a clonal colony or genet: a group of genetically identical individuals. Research (Borum, Jens (2004)) found for one such meadow that it was (genetically) 3,000 years old.

It looks like grass, it functions like grass

Z. marina lives up to its common names like seagrass, eelgrass, or the Dutch zeegras. Growing in the sea, it looks like grass with its long leaves. It is not a grass though. Seagrasses belong to four families in the order Alismatales, whereas grasses belong to one family, Poaceae, in the order Poales. Z. marina is however, like terrestrial grass, an important source of food for various species. Chief among them are birds, such as Brant Geese (Branta bernicla), Canada Geese (B. canadensis), Widgeon and Black Ducks (Anas spp.), and Redhead (Aythya americana). But Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas) for instance, graze it too, as do some isopods (crustaceans that include for instance wood lice) and snails. Occasionally caterpillars of the grass moth Dolicharthria punctalis feed on it. The populations of Z. marina in Izembek Lagoon, Alaska, United States and Laguna Ojo de Liebre, Baja California, Mexico, may be the largest Z. marina systems in the world, and are also the primary staging grounds for migratory waterfowl. (Green EP and Short FT, 2003.)

The ecological and socioeconomic value is even greater because of the species that are associated with Z. marina systems and include for instance the Pacific Herring, (juvenile) Atlantic Cod, the Blue Mussel, the alga Entocladia perforans, the Isopod Idotea chelipes, and the sea urchin Paracentrotus lividus.

Humans eat lots of grasses: wheat, oats, rye, rice, corn or maize – these are all grasses. So it’s not a surprise that Z. marina as a grasslike plant was used for food too. People from the Seri tribe of the coast of Sonora, Mexico, ate the rhizomes and leaf-bases, or dried it into cakes for winter food. The plant played such a significant role apparently, that the Seri language has many words related to eelgrass and eelgrass-harvesting. And, as Wikipedia notes furthermore, the month of April is called xnoois ihaat iizax, which means the month when the Eelgrass seed is mature. Eelgrass was also an important source of food for natives of British Columbia and up to today still represents an important cultural value (Green EP and Short FT, 2003).

But it’s good for packing and stuffing too, and even protection from the sea …

Like wheat that produces straw – used for beds, animal fodder, floor cover and more – so Z. marina was used for more than food alone: as packing material (still practiced), as stuffing in mattresses and cushions, as housing insulation, and as thatching material for roofs (Denmark). Wikipedia gives as modern use the production of biomass energy. The Dutch protected themselves by constructing dykes along the former Zuiderzee (now IJssel Lake) from Eelgrass. It used to be a major source of income of residents of the island of Wieringen (from “Wier”, dutch for algae and by which they referred to Eelgrass). When the Zuiderzee was closed and became a freshwater lake (1932), Eelgrass largely disappeared, which was a great loss for the residents in that area.

How many seagrass species are there?

That depends on which species one considers a seagrass. True seagrasses are considered those that are purely marine, occurring only in sea water. That group has twelve genera and some 58 species according to Wikipedia. McCoy ED and Heck KL (1976) in Green EP and Short FT (2003) give a number of 59, but also caution that

… the actual number of seagrass species is a matter of debate, depending in part on their proximity to the marine environment and on the level of discrimination in physical taxonomy and genetics.

Zostera marina belongs to the true seagrasses. There are also plants that are like seagrasses, but occur in brackish water and inland, and some can also grow in marine surroundings.

Widgeon grass

Ruppia maritima or Widgeon grass is such a seagrass-like species, which belongs to the Ruppiaceae, one of three seagrass-like families. R. maritima is, like Z. marina, distributed worldwide. The plant has wide salinity tolerance and occurs in fresh water, brackish water, marine environments, and in hyper-saline conditions, such as land-locked freshwater lakes where salts have been accumulating. Some treat the plant also as a seagrass.

This species has, like Eelgrass, a wealth of common names. Aside from Widegeon grass, it is also known in English as Beaked Tasselweed. Examples of names in other langugages include a/o Snavelruppia (Dutch), småhavgras (Norwegian), Rupia morska (Polish), Scothóga mara (Scotch Gaelic), Hårnating (Swedish), and Tusw arfor (Welsh).

 

Taxonomy of Wdgeon grass (Ruppia maritima)
Ruppia maritima (Original book source: Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany Permission granted to use under GFDL by Kurt Stueber. Source: www.biolib.de. Downloaded from Wikipedia 06 mar 2015.)

Widgeon grass is grazed by geese, ducks and swans, among them widgeons, ducks of the genus Anas, which explains its name. Green EP and Short FT (2003) mention R. maritima meadows in the Patos Lagoon near the city of Rio Grande, Rio Grande do Sul, covering an area of 120 km2. These meadows are complex habitats and sustain local fisheries

… providing substrate, refuge, nursery and feeding grounds. Associated drift algae can also be locally abundant alternative habitats. Pink shrimp (ca 2800 metric tons landed annually in the region) and the blue crab (ca 1400 tons), found foraging in the seagrass, are important local artisanal fishery resources. Whitemouth croaker (ca 7500 tons) and mullet (ca 2300 tons) also use the Ruppia beds as nursery or foraging grounds. The stout razorclam (Tagelus plebius) is another commercially important species. Predators such as the bottlenose dolphin are common (31-100 individuals within the lagoon system) in the Patos Lagoon and feed principally on whitemouthed croaker which is found in the Ruppia beds.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources describes it as one of the more valuable waterfowl food sources, and that all parts of the plant have nutritional value. Fish also eat the plant, and they then help the plant to disperse since they transport its fruits inside their guts, as do the birds that eat it. The plant also releases its fruit directly in the water.

R. maritima is considered to have a high economic value in the USA since it supports many animal species that are important in commerce and sport. Wetland restoration often begins with the recovery and protection of R. maritima, and its ecological importance is further increased because of its wide range tolerance of salinity.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources mentions that it is often found growing together with Z. marina. That may be so for that part of the USA, but Z. marina and R. maritima have otherwise quite distinct separate distributions:

Post 007-On Zostera marina and seagrass-Fig 05-Distribution of seagrass, Zostera marina, Ruppia maritima-1867 by 700
Range of Zostera marina and Ruppia maritima, and the overall distribution of true seagrasses. (Spatial data: International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In IUCN 2014. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.3. Downloaded on 06 February 2015.) - Click to enlarge

Eelgrass in decline

The IUCN lists R. maritima as Least Concern, but notes that its taxonomy is confused, and therefore its actual range not certain. The IUCN lists Z. marina as Least Concern too, but also notes that there is large scale decline in part of its range due to wasting disease and pollutions threats, areas where it is stable, and areas where it has disappeared completely. Dredging and trawling, as well as harvesting of scallops and mussels, and aquaculture and coastal development in general, damage eelgrass beds as well, or cause it to disappear completely.

Does the decline matter?

Z. marina can form beds on its own, as well as mixed with other sea grasses or seagrass-like plants like R. maritima. In its range, Z. marina is often the dominant species in a sea grass bed. Seagrass beds consist of a variety of seagrass species variously distributed along the coasts of continents the world over. The map below shows the distribution of species richness of seagrass beds. It is clear that in the Asian tropics seagrass systems can be very rich with communities that have up to 15 different species.

Post 007-On Zostera marina and seagrass-Fig 06-Map of seagrass species richness distribution-WCMC-015-SeagrassRichness2003
Global distribution of seagrass species richness. (Created by UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre in collaboration with Dr Frederick T. Short (University of New Hampshire, USA). (UNEP-WCMC, Short FT (2003). Global seagrass species richness. In Supplement to: Green and Short (2003). Cambridge (UK): UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre. URL: http://data.unep-wcmc.org/datasets/9.

Seagrass systems

(Summarised from Green EP and Short FT, 2003.)
Coastal systems are crucial for the life of other species, many of which have a socioeconomic role in human societies. Seagrass communities are

… an important but under-rated resource for coastal people. Physically they protect coastlines from the erosive impact of waves and tides, chemically they play a key role in nutrient cycles for fisheries, and biologically they provide habitat for fish, shellfish and priority ecotourism icons like the dugong, manatee and green turtle.

Seagrasses form an integral part of highly complex ecosystems. Seagrasses themselves are significant primary producers: using sunlight as a source of energy, they produce lots of organic matter. This productivity is increased by other primary producers, such as algae. This plant material forms an important part of many food chains. The three-dimensional structure of seagrass systems provides a/o shelter and cover for other species, binds sediments and can influence currents. All this result in many species being associated with such systems. Some species cannot live in places other than seagrasses, other species rely on them for shorter or longer part of their life. Seagrass systems form therefore a prerequisite for a high level of biodiversity along the coast where they occur. For instance, in Florida, USA, 113 species of algal epiphytes (algae that live on other plants) were recorded associated with seagrass systems. Other numbers include 450 of algal epiphytes, 248 arthropods, 197 mollusks, 171 polychaetes, and 15 echinoderms in New South Wales, Australia. In Florida 100 species of fish were reported, and 30 species of crustaceans. Species that depend exclusively on seagrass systems range from epiphytic algae to manatees and dugong.

Fourteen functions and values of seagrass ecosystems are distinguished in the report, including primary production (which renders them a critical source of food for many species, and which is exported to adjacent ecosystems), nutrient and contaminant filtration (improving water quality), oxygen production (supporting water quality improvement), nutrient regeneration and recycling (efficient nutrient recycling supports overall ecosystem productivity), wave and energy dampening (reducing erosion and turbidity and increasing sedimentation), and carbon sequestration (important for reducing the increase of CO2 levels that fuels climate change).

Seagrass and algae beds are considered the third most valuable ecosystem globally. Waycott, Michelle et al. (2009) put the value of seagrass systems at 1.9 trillion USD per year in the form of nutrient cycling. The importance of seagrass systems for carbon management is highlighted too on various other places (e.g. here, here, and here). Green EP and Short FT (2003) put it in this perspective (literature references removed):

The role of the worlds oceans in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is still being investigated and remains poorly understood. It appears that biological processes in the surface layers of the world’s oceans are one of the few mechanisms actively removing carbon dioxide from the global carbon cycle. Within these processes, seagrasses clearly have a minor role to play, although their high productivity gives them a disproportionate influence on primary productivity in the global oceans on a unit area basis, and they typically produce considerably more organic carbon than the seagrass ecosystem requires. Any removal of carbon either through binding of organic material into the sediments or export into the deep waters off the continental shelf represents effective removal of carbon dioxide from the ocean-atmosphere system which could play some role in the amelioration of climate change impacts.

So, yes, the decline does matter …

Many of the species thus associated with and depending on seagrass systems form important sources of food and income for human communities. Coastal communities benefit furthermore from these systems through protection from for instance coastal erosion and storm surges.

Where people used Zostera marina for food and other purposes and such is no longer the case, the direct impact of a decline in Z. marina is perhaps no longer significant. However, both Zostera marina and Ruppia maritima constitute sources of food for many species of birds and fish that are important to human populations, and, as the above describes, both species are an essential part of the system that they and other seagrasses form. The systems as a whole are of great importance, even where a single species might not be of direct importance for humans, and these systems cannot exist without the individual species of seagrass that form the backbone and basis of a complex, interdependent array of hundreds of different species of a large spectrum of taxonomic groups.

Sadly, seagrasses as habitats are in decline too. Waycott, Michelle et al. (2009), assessed 215 different studies and found

… that seagrasses have been disappearing at a rate of 110 km2 yr-1 since 1980 and that 29% of the known areal extent has disappeared since seagrass areas were initially recorded in 1879.

They note furthermore that rates of decline have accelerated from 0.9% per year before 1940 to 7% per year since 1990. They produced a geographic overview of gains and losses, but note that

Major gaps in information exist for West Africa, northeast South America, and the northwest Pacific area of the United States, where seagrasses are typically restricted in distribution. However, the largest data gap exists in the tropical Indo-Pacific region (from East Africa to Hawaii), where seagrasses are widespread and abundant. Seagrasses in this region perform vital ecosystem services for local human populations, support numerous elements of local economies (8), and are food for endangered species such as dugong and green turtle (22). Furthermore, this region has the highest number of seagrass species, including several endemic species (22).

Red dominates ….. (Source: Waycott, Michelle et al., 2009) - Click to enlarge

Dugong and managetees

Among the animals that rely to a greater or lesser degree on seagrass beds are a group of marine mammals, the manatees and Dugong. Of these, the Dugong or Dugong dugon is probably the most well known. Also known as sea cow, the Dugong occurs along the northern shores of the Australian continent, the shores of south and south-east Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the middle east, and the west side of the African continent, as well as northwards along the coast of Vietnam and Japan.

Taxonomy of the Dugong
The Dugong

The Dugong relies heavily on seagrasses. It uses it for food, and it finds shelter there. Manatees, Trichechusspp., belong to the same order of Sirenia. ForT. manatus seagrasses are an important staple. T. senegalensis relies more on herbaceous food and grasses, among which Ruppia spp. Living in the Amazon basin, T. inunguis does not have use for seagrasses.

The distribution of these four species, illustrated in the map below, is striking. They all four live in the tropics and subtropics, but their ranges do not overlap, except for where T. inunguis and T. manatus meet at the mouth of the Amazon.

Post 007-On Zostera marina and seagrass-Fig.10-Distribution of seagrass, manatees, dugong-1930 by 700
Map showing the distribution of Dugong dugon, Trichechus manatus, T. senegalensis, and T. inunguis. (Spatial data: International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). IUCN 2014. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.3. Downloaded 06 february 2015.) - Click to enlarge

Vulnerable species and seagrass destruction

(Summarised from Marsh, Helene et al., 2002)
The Dugong is listed by the IUCN as a vulnerable species. The animal is believed to be represented by relict populations: the populations were more numerous and more widespread in historical times. Populations are now separated by large areas where its numbers have been greatly reduced or where it no longer exists. Its range is now fragmented. Dugongs are seagrass specialists and need seagrass beds to survive and reproduce. Where seagrass beds are destroyed, the Dugong disappears. Other causes of the decline of Dugongs are accidental entangling in mesh nets and traps for fishing; hunting for meat, oil, and medicament; and being struck by boats. Destruction of seagrass beds can be extensive. Mining and trawling destroy seagrass directly. Dredging, land clearing and land reclamation cause disturbances: an increase of sedimentation and turbidity, which lead to degradation of seagrass extent, density and productivity through smothering and lack of light. Extreme weather events such as cyclones / typhoons and floods can lead to losses of hundreds of square kilometers of seagrass. Such losses are thought to be mostly caused by sedimentation increase and/or an increase in epiphytes due to an enrichment in nutrients. It is not always possible to separate natural and man-made causes of seagrass loss. Risks exist also in the runoff of herbicides from agricultural lands, specifically sugarcane production areas that areadjacent to seagrass beds.

The Smithsonian identifies runoff from land as the most important cause of seagrass disappearance. Both Zostera marina and Ruppia maritima are classified as Least Concern. Seagrass beds as a system are not classified in such a way, but clearly, the system is under pressure, even if species are still only Least Concerned. The decline of seagrass beds impacts directly on people’s livelihoods (all sorts of fisheries) and ultimately national economies.

Conservation

Various initiatives try to address the decline. As noted above, information gaps exist on seagrass. One project that aims to help close those gaps is Seagrasswatch, a ‘global scientific, non-destructive, seagrass assessment and monitoring program’. Now active in 17 countries, with an additional nine participating countries, it aims to;

… raise awareness on the condition and trend of nearshore seagrass ecosystems and provide an early warning of major coastal environment changes. The Seagrass-Watch program has a simple philosophy of involving those who are concerned, and involves collaboration/partnerships between community, qualified scientists and the data users (environment management agencies).

Other initiatives work in the field on actual management. In Madagascar for instance are several projects that aim to halt the decline by establishing community managed areas along the coast. These projects also address the value that coastal systems (mangroves, seagrass) have for halting the increase of CO2
in the atmosphere, and therefore for minimising the rise of global temperatures and the impacts of subsequent climate change.

A project like the Blue Carbon Project focuses on offsetting emissions by conserving ocean vegetation. It describes ‘identifying effective, efficient and politically acceptable approaches to reduce the atmospheric concentration of CO2 as one of society’s most pressing goals’. It formulates as the blue carbon solution:

One of the most promising new ideas to reduce atmospheric CO2 and limit global climate change is to do so by conserving mangroves, seagrasses and salt marsh grasses. Such coastal vegetation, dubbed “blue carbon”, sequesters carbon far more effectively (up to 100 times faster) and more permanently than terrestrial forests. Carbon is stored in peat below coastal vegetation habitats as they accrete vertically. Because the sediment beneath these habitats is typically anoxic, organic carbon is not broken down and released by microbes. Coastal vegetation also continues to sequester carbon for thousands of years in contrast to forest, where soils can become carbon-saturated relatively quickly. Therefore, carbon offsets based on the protection and restoration of coastal vegetation could be far more cost effective than current approaches focused on trees. Furthermore, there would be enormous ad-on benefits to fisheries, tourism and in limiting coastal erosion from the conservation of blue carbon.

International agreements

The Dugong migrates. It can travel substantial distances and crosses international borders when doing so. The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals or CMS “aims to conserve terrestrial, aquatic and avian migratory species throughout their range”. With 120 countries as parties as of May 2014 a number of mammals, birds, insects, fish and reptiles that migrate and cross international borders, are subject to specific conservation attention under the CMS. The Dugong is covered by this convention.

The CMS works a/o with Memoranda of Understanding. One such is the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs and their Habitats throughout their Range or Dugong MoU. While seagrasses themselves are not subject of any specific international agreement, in the range of the Dugong they get special attention, since they are the primary habitat of Dugongs. One instrument of the Dugong MoU is the Conservation and Management Plan for the Dugong MoU. According to that plan, countries will work on activities such as identifying, assessing and evaluating threats to Dugong populations and develop measures to address these threats. Another activity is that countries will reduce to the greatest extent practicable the incidental capture and mortality of dugongs in the course of fishing activities. Countries will also identify and map areas of important Dugong habitat such as seagrass beds. The problem is of course that many countries that harbour Dugong and seagrasses often lack the necessary resources, be they financial, technical, institutional or human resource wise.

A new project of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) is about to start, the Enhancing The Conservation Effectiveness of Seagrass Ecosystems Supporting Globally Significant Populations of Dugongs Across the Indian and Pacific Ocean Basins project. This Dugong and Seagrass Conservation project(as the short title goes) is developed in the context of the Dugong MoU, will work through a number of national projects that focus on protection, policies, awareness, inventories and other topics. A project like this addresses also the resource issues mentioned above. This specific project also aims to achieve greater regional coordination and integration, something that species and systems that cross international borders and are marine clearly need. It aims also to help address the information gaps on seagrasses.

Will it be enough?

There are of course many more projects that work on Dugongs, manatees or seagrass systems or coastal environments in general. For the time being, losses appear greater then areas or populations that are preserved. The question can also be asked whether it is more important to conserve the Dugong or seagrass beds. I personally think that seagrasses as a system are more important to conserve (a mix of preserving and using them wisely), than Dugong. In the end, seagrass systems sustain coastal communities more than the Dugong as a single species. The Dugong, however, is more pattable than seagrasses can ever be. Dugongs are therefore seen as more effective conservation ambassadors and is indeed used as a vehicle as in the Dugong MoU of the CMS.

An important factor in conservation success will be whether countries will realize the socio-economic importance of seagrass beds. Lots of people adhere to the idea that conservation is a luxury, and nature protection should be paid for by a robust economy. In such thinking, harbour development, for instance, trumps seagrass (or coral, or mangrove) preservation, as trade is seen as a greater contributor to the economy than those ecosystems. Economic policies should however realize and acknowledge that the economy is based on healty natural systems. As long as policy and decision makers think the other way around, conservation and preservation will be in the losing seat.

And, as always, climate change is as yet the scary unpredictable factor, the full impact of which on coastal systems is not yet known. One factor is coastal depth. Seagrasses grow in shallow waters. The more seas rise, the more seagrass beds may come under great stress due to lack of light. Seagrass system survival may then depend on the speed with which they are capable (and allowed) to colonise new areas opened up by shorelines creeping inland to make up for areas that have grown too deep to sustain them. The threat of climate change and sea level rise is mentioned on several places in Green EP and Short FT (2003), but they also note that in some places, coral reefs may replace seagrasses. Whether that will happen, depends of course also on how well coral reefs will weather climate change effects. Factors such as temperature and acidity will affect both seagrass and coral species in various degrees, where corals are specifically sensitive to changes in acidity. The next question is then, if certain seagrass species are capable of successful adaptation, which of the species now associated with seagrass ecosystems will likewise be capable of adapting?

Sources

Reports

Borum, Jens, Carlos M Duarte, Tina M Greve, and Dorte Krause-Jensen. (2004). European Seagrasses: An Introduction to Monitoring and Management. M&MS Project.

Green EP, Short FT (2003). World atlas of seagrasses. Prepared by UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Berkeley (California, USA): University of California. 332 pp. URL: https://archive.org/details/worldatlasofseag03gree

Marsh, Helene, Helen Penrose, Carole Erose, and Joanna Hugues (2002). Dugong : Status Report and Action Plans for Countries and Territories. Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Environment Programme, 2002.

McCoy ED and Heck KL (1976) Biogeography of corals, seagrasses and mangroves: An alternative to the center of origin concept. Sys Zool 25:201-210. In: Green EP, Short FT (2003). World atlas of seagrasses. Prepared by UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Berkeley (California, USA): University of California. 332 pp. URL: https://archive.org/details/worldatlasofseag03gree

Waycott, Michelle, Carlos M Duarte, Tim J B Carruthers, Robert J Orth, William C Dennison, Suzanne Olyarnik, Ainsley Calladine, and others. “Accelerating Loss of Seagrasses Across the Globe Threatens Coastal Ecosystems.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106, no. 30 (2009): doi:10.1073/pnas.0905620106. Online accessible via http://www.pnas.org/content/106/30/12377.full.pdf+html

Online sources

Wikipedia entries:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seagrass

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zostera

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zostera_marina

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruppia_maritima

IUCN Red List information:

Zostera marina: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/153538/0

Ruppia maritima: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/164508/0

Dugong dugon: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/summary/6909/0

Trichechus inunguis: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22102/0

Trichechus manatus: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22103/0

Trichechus senegalensis: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22104/0

Catalogue of Life:

Zostera marina: http://www.catalogueoflife.org/col/details/species/id/19165377/source/tree

Ruppia maritima: http://www.catalogueoflife.org/col/details/species/id/19165152/source/tree

Dugong dugon: http://www.catalogueoflife.org/col/details/species/id/19736003/source/tree

World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS):

Zostera marina: http://www.marinespecies.org/aphia.php?p=taxdetails&id=495077

Ruppia maritima:http://www.marinespecies.org/aphia.php?p=taxdetails&id=234031

Encyclopedia of Life:

Zostera marina: http://eol.org/pages/1089042/overview

Ruppia maritima: http://eol.org/pages/1089003/overview

Convention of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS):

CMS general: http://www.cms.int/

CMS Dugong information: http://www.cms.int/en/species/dugong-dugon

CMS Dugong MoU: http://www.cms.int/en/legalinstrument/dugong

Other:

Dep. of Nat. Res. of Maryland, USA, on Ruppia maritima: http://www.dnr.state.md.us/bay/sav/key/widgeon_grass.asp

http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/plants/ruppia/

http://www.botgard.ucla.edu/html/botanytextbooks/worldvegetation/marinewetlands/marinemeadow/taxonomy.html

http://www.seagrasswatch.org/seagrass.html

http://www.seagrassli.org/ecology/what_is_seagrass.html

http://delta-intkey.com/

http://www.sms.si.edu/irlspec/Ruppia_mariti.htm

http://ocean.si.edu/seagrass-and-seagrass-beds

http://www.unep-wcmc.org/resources-and-data

http://www.ecomare.nl/en/encyclopedia/organisms/plants/flowering-plants/eelgrass/

http://www.conservation.org/projects/pages/mitigating-climate-change-on-coasts-blue-carbon.aspx?gclid=CIe52LqIjMQCFcGUvQodJqgAnA

http://www.thebluecarbonproject.com/the-problem-2/

http://bjyv3zhj902bwxa8106gk8x5.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/BVFactsheet_BlueForestsLowRes.pdf

The GEF Dugong and Seagrass Conservation project: http://www.thegef.org/gef/project_detail?projID=4930

The Oak – Its durability will be tested

The Bowthorpe Oak
The Oak, a symbol of old for strength and durability, stirring the imagination throughout the ages, beloved, and of economic importance, will not escape climate change. Its strength and durability will be severely tested, but its diversity may be its rescue
Drawing of Oak leavs and fruit: Walter Hood Fitch - Illustrations of the British Flora (1924) - Permission granted to use under GFDL by Kurt Stueber. Source: www.biolib.de - Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this image under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU Free Documentation License”. Obtained via: http://luirig.altervista.org/schedenam/fnam.php?taxon=Quercus+robur

The Oak – Stirring the imagination

At times tall, with a lush foliage, at times crooked and gnarled especially on windswept places in for instance coastal areas, the Oak – Quercus robur – is one of Europe’s most well-known and beloved trees. Occurring throughout Europe, present also in localities of North Africa, and up to Central Asia and Asia Minor, the Oak has stirred people’s imagination throughout the ages. It can stand magnificently alone, or grow in forests, and can become 30 meters high. The tree is a symbol of strength and endurance, which is also reflected in its scientific name, robur, which means strenght or force. The Oak is also one of the trees often occurring in folk tales and fairy tales. As such, the Oak has played its role in countries’ and cultures’ fortunes. Many countries and regions have chosen the Oak as a national tree, including Serbia, Cyprus, England, Estonia, France, Germany, Moldova, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the United States, Wales, Galicia and Bulgaria. Oak leaves and branches were frequently used as symbols on coat of arms, coins and the like, but also as wreaths during festivities, and as decoration or ornamentation of houses or cars. The Oak featured also prominently in the German romantic period in paintings and novels. And it has it’s share of medicinal uses. The importance of the Oak for people is reflected in the word “oak”. As the Online Etymology Dictionary writes:

oak (n.)
Old English ac “oak tree,” from Proto-Germanic *aiks (cognates: Old Norse eik, Old Saxon and Old Frisian ek, Middle Dutch eike, Dutch eik, Old High German eih, German Eiche), of uncertain origin with no certain cognates outside Germanic.
The usual Indo-European base for “oak” (*deru-) has become Modern English tree (n.); likewise in Greek and Celtic words for “oak” are from the Indo-European root for “tree,” probably reflecting the importance of the oak to ancient Indo-Europeans. The Old Norse form was eik, but as there were no oaks in Iceland the word came to be used there for “tree” in general. Used in Biblical translations to render Hebrew elah (probably usually “terebinth tree”) and four other words.

Distribution map of Quercus robur. Published here for educational purposes with permission of EUFORGEN as stated on the their website http://www.euforgen.org/distribution-maps/

The Sacred Oak

Not only nations took to the Oak. Whole cultures regarded the Oak reverently. For the Celts the Oak was a sacred tree; the Druids of the Celts climbed into the trees and cut the mistletoe, and each acorn possessed the soul of a fairy. For Germanic people the Oak was a symbol of the god Donar, a tree representing thunder and lightning, probably because it appears to be more frequently hit by lightning than other trees. Explanations given for that include the Oak’s high amount of starch, which is a good conductor; it’s deep root system; and the fact that the Oak often grows where there are crossing underground water currents. The Greeks associated the Oak with Zeus, and the Romans associated the Oak with Jupiter and dedicated it to the god Pan: the tree brought fertility. But for both Greek and Romans, the Oak was also the sacred tree of the goddess Rhea, resp. Diana. The Dryads were in that Oak cult the nymphs of the Oak. Slavic people revered the god Percula by means of the Oak.

These cultural and religious beliefs have largely disappeared. One important actor in that process was Saint Bonifacius. As the biography by Willibald will have it, Bonifacius cut down the sacred Oak of Donar in Geismar, in present-day Germany, in 723, precisely to prove that the Oak did not have divine powers, or at least that the wrath of distressed gods would not follow. As a result, many germanic people converted to christianity. This event is regarded by many as a key point in the christinanization of north-western Europe. Perhaps it can also be regarded as the starting point of losing respect for the Oak and perhaps the forest in general. Europe (excluding the Russian Federation) is, after all, by now one of the poorest continents in terms of forest. (FAO. 2010.)

Witnesses of history

We are all witnesses of history, just as even shortlived creatures like mosquitos are, or even amoebae, be it that one single amoeba does not have much chance to live through a memorable event. Oaks though would be marvellous for that, as they are long-lived. This tree can live up to 500 years, and such a specimen, the Kroezeboom (website in Dutch), lives in the Netherlands (in Overijssel). But both Great Brittain (in Bowthorpe) and France (in Bretagne) have specimens thought be 1,000 years old, Denmark (in Jaegerspris) has one between 1,000 and 1,400 years old, and an Oak in Erle, Germany is estimated to be 1,500 years old. This Oak is probably the oldest Oak in Europe. Such old trees could tell a lot. But an oak shares with amoebae that we can’t hear from an Oak what happened in, say, 1753. Things Oaks, and other trees, can tell us about is for instance the climate, by examining the growth rings, unless such old trees have already hollowed out from the inside out. However, we would have to cut it down to do that, and that would be a shame. Better to rely on trees that have already died off and are, for instance, preserved in peat. Trees are therefore not only of value to us alive, but also when dead.

The Bowthorpe Oak. Note: The featured photo is of the thousand year old Bowthorpe Oak in Great Brittain. This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. See this photograph's page on the Geograph website for the photographer's contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Robin Jones and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license
The 1500 old year Oak et Erle, Germany Downloaded from http://www.panoramio.com/photo/109227644, under creative common license. Photo by Pal Meir

What about using the Oak for when you’re hungry or sick ?

The Oak is not the best of food sources for us. The acorn contains quite some nourishment that would benefit us, but it is indigestable. On the other hand, ground acorns were used as a coffee substitute, and to make some kind of bread. Otherwise acorns were more suitable for feeding pigs. Even if not really edible, a good crop of acorns was seen as a sign that the harvest would be good.

Medicinally the Oak has much more to offer. I quote from Plants For A Future:

The oak tree has a long history of medicinal use. It is anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, astringent, decongestant, haemostatic and tonic. The bark is the part of the plant that is most commonly used, though other parts such as the galls, seeds and seed cups are also sometimes used. A decoction of the bark is useful in the treatment of chronic diarrhoea, dysentery, intermittent fevers, haemorrhages etc. Externally, it is used to bathe wounds, skin eruptions, sweaty feet, piles etc. It is also used as a vaginal douche for genital inflammations and discharge, and also as a wash for throat and mouth infections. The bark is harvested from branches 5 – 12 years old, and is dried for later use. Any galls produced on the tree are strongly astringent and can be used in the treatment of haemorrhages, chronic diarrhoea, dysentery etc. The plant is used in Bach flower remedies – the keywords for prescribing it are ‘Despondency’, ‘Despair, but never ceasing effort’. A homeopathic remedy is made from the bark. It is used in the treatment of disorders of the spleen and gall bladder. The German Commission E Monographs, a therapeutic guide to herbal medicine, approve Quercus robur Pedunculate Oak for coughs/bronchitis, diarrhoea, inflammation of mouth and pharynx, inflammation of the skin.

(Numbered references to sources removed to improve readibility.)

The Economy of the Oak

Throughout the ages, the Oak has contributed greatly to the economy of countries. Its wood has graced buildings and made great ships possible. Oak wood is strong and is very resistant to insect and fungal attack, as it has a high tannin contents. It is still used for furniture, floors, timber frame buildings, and veneer production. The tannins that make the Oak so suitable for furniture and buidlings, render barrels made from Oak very suitable for storing wines and sprits, as do other compounds from the wood. Oak wood imparts colour, taste and aroma, and does that even more so if charred. The use of Oak for barrels to produce alcoholic drinks continues until today, and oak wood chips are used for smoking a/o fish, meat and cheeses. It’s not only Q. robur that is used in these fashions. Japanese Oak is used in making drums, the bark of the Cork Oak is used to produce wine stoppers, and Northern Red Oak in North America is the most prized of the red oak group for lumber. I didn’t find an economic valuation of the Oak expressed in a monetary value. But the integration of the Oak in the economy can be imagined by the uses listed by the ecocrop database maintained by the FAO:

The Oak’s value

So, the Oak is important to us in spiritual sense, in medical sense, practically in construction, furniture, and for food and beverages, as well as, because of all the previous, in economic sense. What else does it do? The answer to that would be ecological. The relations that the Oak has as a species with lots of other species are numerous indeed. If we stretch the application of the term “ecological” to include the spiritual value it has for us – and surely stretching the term to that is more defensible than the use of the term “ecosystem” to describe related digital gadgets as in ‘the Apple ecosystem’ – then for that aspect alone the Oak is of tremendous value, given the role it has played, and to an extent continues to play, in defining the cultural – if not political – heritage of countries.

Using ‘ecological’ in the more conventional way, the Oak plays an outsized role. This tree can be considered the heart of the forest system:

A mature oak tree, standing a hundred feet tall, provides lodging, and often board as well, for more different kinds of animals than any other European tree. Thirty species of birds, forty-five different bugs and over two hundred species of moth have been collected from oaks. Each part of the tree has its own particular lodgers.

This phrase – quoted on several websites – stems from David Attenborough, one of the great, if not the greatest, popularizers of natural history in the old-fashioned sense: going out and looking at and observing in nature. (Attenborough, David. 1995.)

Among those birds are for instance the Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius) who counts the acorn among it’s food sources. Birds such as the Great-spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major), or the Eurasian Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) live from insects that live on and in the Oak’s bark. As for mammals, one would expect a mammal like the the European Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) to rely on the Oak too. However it does not: it cannot digest acorns, and relies on other fruits instead, notably the hazelnut, the fruit from the hazel tree (Corylus avellana). The Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) from North America, introduced to Great Brittain and Italy, can more easily digest acorns, and this is considered one of the factors that allows this squirrel to outcompete the European Red Squirrel. Mice however, do eat acorns, when they are fallen on the ground. Birds like the Rook (Corvus frugilegus) and Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus) also eat fallen acorns.

Numerous insect species live on the leaves, the buds and the bark, and in the acorns. Well-known are gall wasps. These wasps secrete chemicals which induce the Oak leaf to grow around the egg or larva and protect these. The best known is the Common Oak Gall Wasp (Cynips quercusfolii) wich produces spherical galls of about 2 cm on the underside of the Oak leaf. Some of these galls can be brightly colored. Other insects, such as the Green Oak Moth (Tortrix viridana) relies on Oak leaves when it is a larva. The larva eats the leaf, then rolls up in an Oak leaf. It transforms into a pupa, which in turn produces the adult moth.

Numerous fungi find a place on the Oak too, and on dead leaves that are fallen on the ground. An exampe is the Edible Beefsteak Fungus (Fistulina hepatica). The leaves on the grounds also feed many invertebrates. The Oak has symbiotic relationships too: associations between the Oak and another species that benefit both. An example is the Orange Oak Bolete (Leccinum quercinum). The fungus gets sugars from the Oak. The Oak is helped by nutrients that the fungus extracts from the soil.

The Encyclopedia of Life records forty-nine different species of gall-wesps, moths, and parasitic or half-parasitic fungi and plants. Aside from this, the Oak provides a place to grow for numerous lichens and mosses, and also higher plants, such as the Mistletoe (Viscum album). The Mistletoe is half-parasitic: it has both green leaves that provides it with energy, and it is rooted in the Oak to extract nutrients that it otherwise would get if it would be rooted in the soil.

And that’s when the Oak is still alive. When it is dead and decaying, many different fungi live from it and help break the wood down so that the tree eventually returns to the soil. It’s not just fungi that benefit from a decaying Oak tree. Such a tree provides roosting sites, for example for owls, and hibernation sites for bats.

To all this we should add the organisms that rely on the Oak indirectly, for instance mice that eat fallen acorns and fall prey to hunting
owls. The Oak then is at the heart of a complex web of relations of food and shelter.

Whereas the Oak provides so much for other organisms, the tree relies in turn for its continued existence on other organisms. Most of its fruit, the acorns, are eaten or rot away. It relies on jays or squirrels that bury acorns and then forget some, or die before they can eat them, to successfully sprout new Oaks. Of course, humans can do that too, so, is it necessary to ensure the presence of those animals that do seed dispersal? One study concludes that the replacement costs of one pair of jays for seeding or planting is 4,900 USD or 22,500 USD respectively. (Hougner, Cajsa, et al. 2006.) Not only the Oak is valuabe, the biodiversity it supports and which in turn helps the Oak, is that too.

Will the King of the forest be beaten by Climate Change?

That is a question to which the definite answer is not yet found, and we will probably only find out definitely in the course of time with the ongoing pressures of climate change growing more intense. That said, research has been undertaken to investigate this, but of course, it is very difficult to give definite answers, since that would require laboratory and/or field experiments to be done. While laboratory experiments can be conceived with planting acorns and observing young Oaks under controlled conditions, given the longevity of the tree that is expressed in hundreds of years, it is virtually impossible to say something sensible on basis of direct observations and predict in this way how Oaks will react and what one can best do. In fact, one study concludes reports age-dependent reactions to changes in climate: young trees react differently than older trees. (Rozas, Vicente. 2005.)

This research as so many others of this kind, relies on studying tree-ring growth patterns in relation to various environmental conditions that change over time, specifically climatic conditions. Other studies look at genetics and historical changes (measured in thousands of years). One such study emphasizes the importance of diversity in existing Oak populations in the reaction to climate change. The study “… predicts that substantial evolutionary shifts can be expected in a limited number of generations due to the high level of genetic diversity in oaks, and that gene flow will be an important driver of adaptive evolution.” (Kremer, Antoine. 2010.)
The study continues with the advice to enhance the adaptive potential of local populations by mixing local stocks with seeds or seedlings from other sources during regeneration.

Biodiversity and climate change

In a previous post I referred to the inclusion of genetic diversity in the concept of biodiversity. Studies like the above emphasize how important diversity is to increase the chances of survival for species in the face of climate change. The study referenced above refers to the genetic diversity that exists in Oak populations. The number of subspecies for Q. robur listed in the Catalogue of Life suggests that the Oak is indeed quite diverse. The species is not even agreed upon by everyone.

One article observes that a number of different Oak species are distinguished which by others are assigned to eitehr Q. robur or Q. petraea. It then continues with the observation that the distinction between Q. robur and Q. petraea as species is questionable, since they are interfertile, and these species are by some regarded as ecotypes or subspecies within one composite species of Q. robur. (Gömöry, Dušan, et al. 2001.)

Based on the apparent diversity of the mighty Oak – Quercus robur – perhaps we can be optimistic that its variability that makes it hard to pin down as a species, lets it survive the challenges of climate change.

Sources

In the text above, many sources are not directly indicated to improve readibility. Below follows a list of various sources from which I took information.

Referenced documentation

Attenborough, David. The Private Life of Plants: A Natural History of Plant Behaviour. 1995. London, BBC books.

Hougner, Cajsa, Johan Colding, and Tore Söderqvist.Economic Valuation of a Seed Dispersal Service in the Stockholm National Urban Park, Sweden. Ecological Economics 59, no. 3 (2006): 364-374.

FAO. Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010 : Main Report. 2010. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Gömöry, Dušan, Igor Yakovlev, Petar Zhelev, Jarmila Jedináková, and Ladislav Paule. Genetic Differentiation of Oak Populations Within the Quercus Robur/Quercus Petraea Complex in Central and Eastern Europe. Heredity 86, no. 5 (2001): 557-563.

Kremer, Antoine. Evolutionary Responses of European Oaks to Climate Change. Ir. For 67 (2010): 53-65.

Rozas, Vicente. Dendrochronology of Pedunculate Oak (Quercus Robur L.) in An Old-growth Pollarded Woodland in Northern Spain: Tree-ring Growth Responses to Climate. Annals of forest Science 62, no. 3 (2005): 209-218.

Online

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_squirrel

http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonifatius_%28heilige%29

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thor

http://www.ubm.ro/sites/CJEES/past_issues.php

http://www.etymologiebank.nl/trefwoord/eik

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=oak

http://www.sisef.it/iforest/contents/?id=ifor0911-007

http://treesforlife.org.uk/forest/oak/

http://explorer.natureserve.org/

http://www.efloras.org/

http://www.arkive.org/pedunculate-oak/quercus-robur/

http://eol.org/pages/1151323/overview

http://eol.org/pages/1151323/details

http://www.gbif.org/species/2878688

http://www.catalogueoflife.org/col/details/species

http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=

http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/63532/0

http://dier-en-natuur.infonu.nl/natuur/112598-de-eik-in-nederland.html

http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eik

http://www.stemderbomen.nl/

http://mediterranean.panda.org/about/forests/cork/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oak http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quercus_robur

Antarctic Krill – Small crustaceans powering giants

Euphasia superba
Living in the Southern Ocean, these small crustaceans generate an enormous biomass that sustains a wealth of antarctic fauna, as well as human economic activities

Imagine …

… an ocean with a low temperature of -2 0C, and a high temperature of 10 0C. Imagine further frequent storms because of the contrasting temperatures between sea ice and open ocean, and open seas without a human soul for miles around. This is the Southern Ocean, that encircles the continent Antarctica.
Ocean boundaries are of course arbitrary, and the very existence of the Southern Ocean is not necessarily agreed upon by everyone. As the Wikipedia entry on the Southern Ocean notes:

The International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) has not yet formally published its 2000 draft definition of the existence of the ocean and of it being south of 60°S due to global ‘areas of concern’ such as the Sea of Japan.

Pending the IHO’s official description, this post is about a species that calls the Southern Ocean its home and which is single handedly responsible for feeding many impressive mammal and bird species: whales, seals, squids.

Antarctic krill

That species is Antarctic Krill or Euphausia superba. It is in fact one of 89 species of krill, which is subdivided over two families, the Bentheuphasiidae and the Euphausiidae. The latter family consists of crustaceans that look like shrimps. Krill as a group is widespread, occurring in many open seas, including the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman. But this one species, E. superba, is the most abundant, living in large schools or swarms in the Antarctic waters between the continent and the polar front, generally within depths of 100m or less. It is estimated to reach a biomass of 500 million tonnes and in that respect thought to be the most abundant animal species on the planet.

Close-up of krill

What a biomass of 500 million tonnes can do

Details on the life of krill or more specifically E. superba, can be found on many places on the Internet, such as here, here, or here. In this post I want to highlight the ecological role of krill, and specifically that of E. superba. Krill are not the lowest level of the food chain, but one step above it. They feed on phytoplankton — floating, mostly single cell plants. The many species of phytoplankton are the primary producers, capturing sunlight and converting it into energy. Surprisingly, the next step after Antarctic krill can be huge mammals, baleen whales, including the Blue Whale, Balaenoptera musculus, the largest animal currently existing on the planet. The Blue Whale does not live from E. superba alone. Among the other krill species it eats are Euphausia crystallorophias, E. pacifica, E. valentini, Meganyctiphanes norvegica, Nematoscelis megalops, Nyctiphanes australis, N. simplex, Thysanoessa inermis, T. longicaudata, T. longipes, T. raschii, and T. spinifera.

From tiny algae to massive whales in three steps

Krill dependencies

This seems a simple enough food chain. In three steps from tiny sunlight absorbing plants to the largest animal on the planet. Although that in itself is amazing enough, food relations are rarely that simple. For one, the Blue Whale itself — although largely dependent on krill — eats different species depending on where it is, in the Southern Ocean, or the Pacific, or elsewhere. And then, other species eat E. superba as well, and are themselves eaten in turn. Food chains form food webs.

A simplified food web based on E. superba. Adapted from Discovering Antarctica. This food web can be made more complex by adding many more species. There are for instance a number of squid species, more than one species of Albatross, more predators can be added, and so on
 

Three things become clear from the simplified food web:

  • Phytoplankton is the basis of (almost) all life in the oceans. If the phytoplankton would decline, so would most other life as a consequence. (Exceptions are organisms such as for instance bacteria living at deep-sea hydrothermal vents, which find an alternative source of energy in those vents.)
  • E. superba sustains quite a number of animal species directly through it’s massive numbers.
  • A number of animal species depend on E. superba indirectly, forming intricate food webs.

Fisheries

We as a species belong mainly to the last group, and it happens in two ways. The first way is we fish krill directly using most of it as fodder. The fodder sustains aquaculture and other industries, which feed us. (A small portion of the krill we catch is used for direct consumption and that is why we also belong a little to the group of animals that rely on E. superba (and other krill) directly.) The second way is we catch fish that feed on krill.

The krill fishery has a global harvest of 150-200,000 tonnes per year. That is mostly Antarctic krill and North Pacific krill (E. pacifica). The catch of Antarctic krill amounts since the mid-1990s to about 100-120,000 tonnes per year. This is far below what the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) allows: nearly five million tonnes per year. These CCAMLR quota are criticised as being too high, because there are no precise estimates of krill biomass, and because krill is declining since the 1990s.

Fish catches are much more modest, at least at the end of the previous century. The Wikipedia entry on the Southern Ocean refers to fisheries on krill and fish amounting to almost 120,000 tonnes between mid 1998 and mid 1999. Of this, 85% was krill, and 14% was the Patagonian Toothfish Dissostichus eleginoides. Both krill and Patagonian Toothfish are subject to regulated fisheries, where operators follow CCAMLR regulations and conservation measures, and unregulated ones.

Euphausia superba and us

From the above, it follows then that this small crustacean is of great importance. The significance this one species has for our existence is aesthetic and spiritual, economic, and survival.

The aesthetic and spiritual (in the sense of taking joy or pleasure from being in nature and experiencing it) significance is by far not negligible. Maybe it’s not krill itself that evokes this, but surely many of the species that rely on it do. Just imagine what the world would be without squid, or perhaps the more impressive Blue Whale or Wandering Albatross, or the more endearing Crabeater Seal (especially its cute pups!).

Economically E. superba is of considerable importance. A fisheries catch of 120,000 tonnes per year may perhaps not be much when compared to overall fisheries globally, but they are not small numbers either. A good many people and companies rely on these fisheries, aside from the food it provides.

It would also seem that krill lets us survive. Food webs are complicated processes, and a good many species — more than the simplified food web above depicts — are part of this food web. The illustration shows clearly that E. superba has an oversized role in driving the ecosystem processes in the Antarctic. The Antarctic is not isolated. Sea boundaries are not fixed, firm lines. The various systems and processes of the Southern Ocean interact with other processes, food chains and food webs in other regions of the ocean. Should the krill population decline dramatically, and thus the many species that rely on it, then this will have a ripple effect, the outcome of which is uncertain.

The outlook for E. superba

Unfortunately, the outlook is not too good. Krill populations have been declining since the 1970s. The reasons for that are not understood. But the decline is still ongoing, and is now exacerbated by other factors.

One such factor is overfishing. Krill Facts writes that until 2009 the harvest was stabilised around 120,000 tonnes per year. But since then it has been increasing to more than 200,000 tonnes. Overfishing is a real threat, illustrated by the example of the Mackerel Icefish, Champsocephalus gunnari, which used to be the most common fish in coastal waters in the Southern Ocean, but no longer so due to overfishing in the 1970s and 1980s. The quoted numbers of krill biomass sound impressive, but since so many animals depend on it, overfishing by humans can have great impacts on a system where Antarctic krill is the cornerstone of the system.

Another factor is increased ultraviolet radiation as a result from the ozone hole in the Antarctic and which has been reported as having caused a reduction of 15% in marine primary production. That means considerable lower amounts of phytoplankton on which krill depends to produce that amazing biomass.

And then there is climate change. The oceans have been growing warmer which will affect species when the limits of their temperature ranges are surpassed. Sea water is also becoming increasingly acidified due to an increase of absorbed CO2. The increase in acidity affects the production of phytoplankton negatively, the very basis of the system.

Because of these and other factors krill numbers are declining. Figures I have found include a recently updated entry in Wikipedia on krill fisheries which gives an actualised estimate of 379 million tonnes of krill, which would mean a decline of more than 120 million tonnes or 24% of the estimate of 500 million tonnes quoted at the beginning of this post. In addition, Cool Antarctica writes

Krill numbers may have dropped by as much as 80% since the 1970s – so today’s stocks are a mere 1/5th of what they were only 30 years ago.

Should we worry ?

Yes, we should.

The hole in the ozone layer appears to be on the mend; overfishing can be regulated, and the CCAMLR appears to have a positive effect; global warming however, is ongoing.

At the time of writing this post, news outlets reported on the agreement between USA and China on addressing emissions causing climate change. The reactions on the news vary quite a bit, but with many reporting that environmental organisations broadly welcomed the deal. Friends of the Earth however writes:

While the U.S.-China Announcement on climate change creates important political momentum internationally, it falls significantly short of the aggressive reductions needed to prevent climate disruption.

Although the rest of the article uses strong language, this formulation of “preventing climate disruption” is still an understatement. Climate change is already happening, and therefore the climate is already disrupted. What’s more, unless CO2 will be taken out of the sky, conditions will be changing or at least be different from current ones, for centuries to come. And aside from temperature changes — which fuel extreme weather events with potential disastrous consequences, sea level rises, and, for instance, declines in agricultural production — there is acidification of the oceans that already causes phytoplankton and carbonate dependent organisms such as corals to decline. This will in turn will have great disastrous effects on fisheries worldwide, and E. superba in particular. And as a consequence, whales, seals, fish, squids will find less and less food. It remains to be seen whether one or more other organisms can take its place to sustain the food web.

It’s not possible anymore to stop climate change. We can only work to limiting climate change and mitigate it’s effects.

SOURCES

To avoid repeating links and references, here is a list of the principal sources I have gleaned information from for this post:

Encyclopedia of Life: http://eolspecies.lifedesks.org/pages/17370

Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition: http://www.asoc.org

The Species 2000 & ITIS Catalogue of Life: http://www.catalogueoflife.org/col/details/species/id/1447042

Website on Antarctica maintained by Paul Ward: http://www.coolantarctica.com

Discovering Antarctica, a website operated by the Royal Geographic Society: http://www.discoveringantarctica.org.uk

Friends of the Earth: http://www.foe.org

Krill Facts website maintained by the International Science and Health Foundation: http://www.krillfacts.org

MarineBio Conservation Society: http://www.marinebio.org From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad%C3%A9lie_penguin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antarctic_krill http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antarctic_toothfish http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_whale http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emperor_penguin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krill http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krill_fishery http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mackerel_icefish http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocean_fisheries http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patagonian_toothfish http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phytoplankton http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_Ocean

Edited to adjust last sentence above the list of sources (10 December 2014)

Biodiversity – What is it ?

UN Convention on Biodiversity: “Biological diversity” means the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.

Since these pages are devoted to singing the praise of Biodiversity, it should be clear what we talk about here. Most people will instantly think of biodiversity as all species that exist. Most people will then think of birds, and mammals, and probably also trees, and flowers, and animals like bees, butterflies, fish and corals and the like. Organisms that are (relatively) easy to see or observe.

If so, then it should not be forgotten that creatures like mushrooms, worms, crabs, or for instance mosses and lichens belong to it as well. And not to forget tiny organisms like multicellular microscopic life like Volvox, and mono cellular life, such as diatoms (well, most of them are; some also come together to form colonies). And, although lots of people refer to them as “germs”, bacteria and viruses also belong to it. All these creatures make up the impressive gamut of species that make up biodiversity.

Birds, butterflies, mushrooms, trees, and microscopic life - They are all constituents of biodiversity

But …

The concept of Biodiversity doesn’t stop there. To understand that, it is worthwhile to look at the concept of species. When I studied biology, a sort practical definition that was accepted was that organisms belong to the same species if they can get fertile offspring. In other words, children should be able to procreate. This makes sense of course, since what make creatures what they are is determined by their genetic information. If that cannot be brought forward, then what makes something a species is not maintained. The process of evolution through which species come and go cannot work either. So the famous mule – a cross between a donkey and a horse – is not a valid species, because it is sterile.

However, that same concept of species becomes murky when for instance orchids are studied. Orchids are famous for their capacity to produce hybrids. As the website eMonocot writes on it’s orchid pages:

Many genera show a marked degree of interfertility both between their individual species and with species of other genera. This has given rise to innumerable artificial hybrids, both interspecific and intergeneric, which form the basis of a very important and extensive horticultural industry.

It has been said therefore that orchids, being a relatively new group of flowering plants, are still fully in the phase of generating species. But other groups have problems as well. Recently I came across two gibbon species, for instance, that illustrate that conundrum. One is called Nomascus siki, or Southern White-cheeked Gibbon. The other one isN. leucogenys, or Northern White-cheeked Gibbon. The IUCN Red List site webpage for the Southern White-cheeked Gibbon says:

This taxon is variously considered a subspecies of N. concolor, N. leucogenys and N. gabriellae (M. Richardson pers. comm.). This may not be a genuine species, but rather, a natural hybrid of N. leucogenys and N. gabriellae. According to Delacour (1951) and Groves (1972), this species may possibly interbreed with N. gabriellae in Saravane and Savannakhet, Lao.

Inter-species variation

This consideration brings the idea of sub-species into the discussion. Within a species – regarded as a natural unit that separates one group of organisms from all other organisms – are sub-groups of organisms that share genetic information, are distinctly different from other subgroups, but yet it is possible to have fertile offspring produced by individuals from different subgroups. This is one way in which evolution works. It is also a way in which humanity has produced lots of food crops and livestock. All those different varieties of potatoes, beans, chickens, cows, horses, rice, manioc, tomatoes, bananas, corn or maize, and so on, are fine-tuned to the environment for which they were developed. But all those varieties can in principle interbreed.

The well-known banana comes in many varieties

This discussion isn’t so much about the concept of species, as it is to emphasise the role of genes for biodiversity. It is the package of genes and the variety that exist within individuals of the same species that make up biodiversity. So biodiversity includes species, and varieties, in order to capture the essential quality of the concept Biodiversity.

This brings us back to viruses. The question whether viruses are alive or not is irrelevant. Viruses contain genetic material and they change, evolve, constantly. For that reasons, they belong to biodiversity. Prions are wrongly shaped proteins and are not regarded as living organisms: they do not contain genetic material, and don’t have a cellular structure. They would therefore not be part of biological diversity. (Yet they are infectious! Read more here.)

Still not all …

All creatures live together in systems. Such systems are referred to as ecosystems. When I studied, the idea of ecosystem was a relative idea. A fresh water lake was considered an ecosystem, but the forest that contained such fresh water lake as well. Another school preferred more static definitions. A forest with lakes in it, would be considered a landscape for instance, and the forest as such an ecosystem, as would be the fresh water lake. Whatever conceptual approach is used for the term ecosystem, the basic idea is the same. Organisms do not live in isolation. They always live together in systems. Evolution is the process that describes how species are formed and how they are changed and give birth to other species. This works under pressure of the environment of such species. Pressure comes from non-living elements, such as soil chemistry or physical properties of soil, water availability and so on. It some also from other organisms that live within that system. Birds of prey hunting small birds or insects. Caterpillars eating the leaves of host plants. And so on. Species and varieties develop because of the systems they live in. Ecosystems belong therefore also to the concept of Biodiversity.

Convention on Biodiversity

Most countries have agreed to preserve biological diversity via ratification of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). In this convention are a number objectives and measures to actively work towards sustainable development and preserve this diversity. The text of the convention (Convention on Biological Diversity. IUCN, June 5, 1992.) uses the definition of biological diversity quoted above. On it’s website it says it a bit more elaborate, incorporating the elements discussed above:

Biological diversity – or biodiversity – is the term given to the variety of life on Earth and the natural patterns it forms. The biodiversity we see today is the fruit of billions of years of evolution, shaped by natural processes and, increasingly, by the influence of humans. It forms the web of life of which we are an integral part and upon which we so fully depend.

This diversity is often understood in terms of the wide variety of plants, animals and microorganisms. So far, about 1.75 million species have been identified, mostly small creatures such as insects. Scientists reckon that there are actually about 13 million species, though estimates range from three to 100 million.

Biodiversity also includes genetic differences within each species – for example, between varieties of crops and breeds of livestock. Chromosomes, genes, and DNA-the building blocks of life-determine the uniqueness of each individual and each species.

Yet another aspect of biodiversity is the variety of ecosystems such as those that occur in deserts, forests, wetlands, mountains, lakes, rivers, and agricultural landscapes. In each ecosystem, living creatures, including humans, form a community, interacting with one another and with the air, water, and soil around them.

It is the combination of life forms and their interactions with each other and with the rest of the environment that has made Earth a uniquely habitable place for humans. Biodiversity provides a large number of goods and services that sustain our lives.

Species coming and going – but now they are going too fast ….

And climate change is the dangerous process that we now embark on that will heavily impact on this diversity. The myriad of relations between living organisms and therefore between living organisms and non-living elements like soil are going to be changed in unforeseeable directions and magnitudes. After centuries of work, various examples around the world show that often it is not yet completely understood how ecosystems work precisely. Taking out so many elements in rapid succession out of these systems by altering the physical conditions through climate change is a very dangerous experiment. It will make life for people very difficult for decades, if not centuries to come, by causing huge changes in the conditions that we are to live in.

The Power of Sea-Monkeys – How tiny invertebrates probably impact the global climate

Artemia salina, mating pair, femaile left, male right

Feature image credits: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Attribution: © Hans Hillewaert. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brine_shrimp#/media/File:Artemia_salina_4.jpg)

Small sea-dwelling organisms impact human life through commerce and probably also through ocean currents, and, ultimately, the climate

Sea-Monkeys – Do these really exist ? Yes, they do thanks to a Mr. Harold van Braunhut, except that they are not monkeys. He popularised the use of brine-shrimps as part of a water purifier. He did this in 1957, and gave the name Sea-Monkey to brine-shrimps in 1962. (Read all about it here.) They are also known as Aqua Dragons. Brine-shrimps or branchiae-legged crayfish (=crayfish with gills on their legs), refer to species of the genus Artemia. Artemia spp. belong to the phylum Arthropoda, the class Branchiopoda, the order Anostraca, and the family Artemiidae.

As a group, Artemia spp. occur in most of the world: Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Australia. It’s an old group, evolutionary speaking, having lived together with dinosaurs 100 million years ago. A. spp. are tiny, about 10 mm long, some up to 20 mm. Their biology is interesting. One species, A. parthenogenetica, can reproduce without males present. Eggs can survive for years in a dried state to hatch later, a phenomenon known as cryptobiosis.

The commerce of Sea-Monkeys

However, this blog is not about details of the biology of such species, however interesting. If you’re interested in that there is plenty of information on the internet, for example the page on A. salina in Wikipedia, or the one on Sea-Monkeys. There is also a website dedicated to Artemia: Artemia World (a company dealing in Artemia products).

This blog is about the importance of biodiversity, more specifically, for the well being, if not survival, of us, human beings, directly or indirectly. So how do we relate to these small crayfish?

Past delicacy

According to Artemia World, brine-shrimps were in the past used as food by a/o American Indians (notably in Utah, where they were found in Utah’s Salt Lake), and Arabs, who made a paste out of brine-shrimps caught in the Nile, this being known in both cases as delicious food.

Nowadays Artemia is exclusively used as fish fodder. In the more recent past, this was mainly for aquarium enthusiasts. According to Artemia World, A. spp. are good as aquarium fodder during all three phases of their life cycles, as eggs, as larvae (the so-called Nauplius larva), and as adult. The phenomenon of cryptobiosis makes storage of Artemia-based fodder very convenient. Eggs (or cysts) can be stored long term if kept dry, and still provide living fodder later.

Where Artemia really has an impact though is in aquaculture. It is used on an industrial scale to feed prawns, crabs, hermits and lobsters. Artemia World also writes that a boom in the 1970s of marine culture of “evrigalin” salt-water fish in the mediterranean was based on A. spp. (But I could not find what “evrigalin” refers to. If anybody knows? ….) There are a number of websites of companies that sell Artemia products and give details on nutrition value and the like (including Artemia World).

  • Life cycle of Artemia salina
  • Life cycle of Artemia franciscana
  • Artemia salina
  • Artemia cysts and nauplii larvae
  • Hatching Artemia egg
  • Artemia nauplii larvae
  • Close-up of Artemia nauplius larva
  • Asian Sea-bass feeding on Artemia larvae
  • Hatched Artemia cyst with empty cyst shell
  • Artemia culture in a pond in Thailand
  • Artemia breeding ponds in San Francisco Bay, USA
  • Artemia cysts and hatchery feeds
  • Fluid aquarium feeds based on Artemia products
  • Filter nets at sluice gates

Artemia and conservation

Based on Artemia World’s information, the use of Artemia as fish fodder also impacts on conservation: (young) sturgeons who no longer live in conditions that allow reproduction and living due to hydropower plants and other artificial dams, can be fed Artemia in special pools. When they are strong enough, the young sturgeons can be released in their natural environment.

In addition, Artemia is used as a species to test the toxicity of chemicals. However, according to Wikepedia, it has gained that use despite the fact that it is a very resilient species, and is therefore not a sensitive indicator species.

Brine-shrimps or Sea-Monkeys then, have quite an impact on human life and economy, and also play a role in conservation and environmental control and monitoring.

Artemia salina – To be or not to be

Sea-Monkeys may exist, but the situation concerning the existence of Artemia salina is somewhat confusing, and to what precisely Sea-Monkeys refer is not clear either. A. salina as a species can be readily found in the online and continuously updated Catalogue of Life, and the data portal Global Biodiversity Information Facility. Yet, Artemia World says that A. salina has been declared extinct and that now only seven other species of Artemia exist (A. tunisiana, A. species, A. franciscans, A. parthenogenetica, A. sinica, A. persimilis, and A. urmiana). It’s a bit strange, especially with the additional information that of the seven species that now exist one would be called A. species! This is probably because of a map that lists A. sp. In Kazakhstan:

Distribution map (found at www.aquaculture.ugent.be)

The Catalogue of Life lists in addition to the species listed by Artemia World A. monica, A. gracilis, and A. tibetiana, and also lists A. salina (sic!). The Catalogue of Life is continuously updated, so it’s probably better to follow the listings there. Artemia World also writes that Sea-Monkey is a name given to a large-size “commercial” form of Artemia, also referred to as Artemia NYOS, developed by the no longer existing New York Ocean Science laboratory, and which is not accepted as a separate taxon.

The naming conundrum

Ocean currents

This discussion on whether A. salina does or does not exist, of to what Sea-Monkeys precisely refer to, is relevant to the extent that this humble but useful crayfish has recently been studied to understand better an other phenomena that affect humans (and other organisms) worldwide: ocean currents. The fact that it has been studied, would imply that the species is not extinct. This contradictory state of information may be the result of recent reclassifications perhaps, but, if so, I did not get that information from the Catalogue of Life.

A. salina itself does not live in the sea. It lives in inland salt water bodies (another element that makes the term Sea-Monkey for this species confusing, as it normally does not live in the sea!). A. salina has been studied as a proxy for numerous other small sea-dwelling organisms, including other Artemia species and a/o krill. Monica M. Wilhelmus and John O. Darbin of the California Institute of Technology, USA, studied the movements of A. salina in water tanks. Sea-monkeys make daily movements, as lots of other small organisms in the sea do. During the night they are closer to the surface than during the day. The two researchers studied the upward migrations using high-speed cameras and microscopic silver-coated glass spheres. Popular Science which discusses this research posted also a video where you can see the movement and the effects it has on the water column. Whereas each shrimp has only a tiny effect on the water, the combined effects of large numbers of crayfish swimming upwards, has a measurable effect on the water column: they generate a current that is stronger than the sum of those created by each individual. The researchers think that the collective action can be powerful enough to influence broad circulation patterns. In the words of Popular Science:

… if other small sea creatures influence water flow in similar ways, it could mean that together they add a trillion watts of power to the ocean’s currents. That means that even the most minuscule organisms could drive the distribution of salt, nutrients and heat throughout the oceans, and they may even influence climate.

In the words of the original article:

(…) We hypothesize that the evolution of Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities at the boundaries of the intermittent jets within a DVM could trigger Rayleigh-Taylor instabilities across surfaces of constant density and the formation of internal waves along those surfaces. Both processes could potentially result in large mixing eddies, which may explain previous findings of density overturns after krill migration in the ocean. (…)

Ecological processes and climate

Biodiversity manifests itself in a myriad lifeforms, which exist in a myriad of different ways. Whereas through ecological studies we know and think to understand many systems, research like this shows that we still do not know everything, and do not yet understand the many different systems and how they different species interact with each other and with the inanimate landscape elements. Tinkering with systems you do not completely know and understand can be hazardous. We are now entering a phase in Earth’s existence where we tinker with one of the most basic of systems that determine how we live, the climate. As the research above shows, we still do not completely understand the complex systems that determine our climate, and probably never will completely understand such systems. Tinkering with the climate looks more and more a hazardous game.

Perhaps though there is still hope: Artemia made it to the cartoon world, and has become a hero !

What does Galileo have to do with Climate Change ?

The Globe is having a fever
THIS POST IS AGAIN ON CLIMATE CHANGE, RATHER THAN ON BIODIVERSITY. THE REASON IS THE LINK MADE BETWEEN CLIMATE CHANGE AND GALILEO IN A RECENT DISCUSSION THAT I CAME ACROSS

Recently I came across a discussion on the site Climate Science Watch. This discussion was triggered by an OpEd in the Wall Street Journal by Mr. Steven E. Koonin, titled Climate Science Is Not Settled. In it, Mr. Koonin argues on basis of a number of arguments that far from being settled, the climate science is not complete enough to direct climate policy. Climate Science Watch, which describes itself as:

Climate Science Watch is a nonprofit public interest education and advocacy project dedicated to holding public officials accountable for using climate research effectively and with integrity in dealing with the challenge of global climate disruption.

I picked up on it, and criticised this OpEd on a number of points, chief among them inaccuracies and fallacies. It argued against the concluding idea of the article, that action should be delayed and more climate research be done.

Mr. Koonins view

Climate Science Watch is an open site where everyone can contribute (if the moderator accepts the comment). A number of people contributed. One of the comments referred to the consensus among (climate) scientists with regard to the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and found such consensus not correct. The argument went like this:

And, that is the problem – that you believe that science is based on “the views shared by leading climate science experts.” That approach is wrong. Always. No one, scientist or not, should ever view science as a matter of counting the leading experts. That approach is wrong. Always. No one, scientist or not, should ever view science as a matter of counting the leading experts. The Nazis once published a book with numerous German scientists “refuting” Einstein. Einstein replied that if they had had a legitimate point, one would have been enough. Einstein was right. Science is not settled by counting noses. It is settled by evidence. To “pay attention to the views shared by leading… science experts” would mean the death of science. Or to quote Galileo, “’In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” That is science, not counting noses.

Wrong argument

I have always felt something wrong with that argument and started to reason it out. I posted the following comment:

Thanks to Zite, an iPad app, I came across this discussion started on basis of the OpEd of Mr. Koonin. The discussion touched upon the conundrum of the consensus among scientists on the various issues surrounding climate change. The argument against it is that science is not done by counting noses, but is based on evidence. Hence, those that argue against the current stark warnings of climate change – ranging from talking down the risks to flat out denial – refer also in this discussion, as has been done elsewhere, to Galileo, and in this case also to Einstein. It’s not consensus they say that should direct policy, but evidence. Galileo and Einstein are the heroes, because they based themselves on evidence against mainstream opinion and convictions. I can add another scientist to this illustrious group. Charles Darwin, just ahead of Alfred Russell Wallace, published his studies and findings on evolution. He kept to it, despite the ridicule he and the theory of evolution had to endure.

To me, using this argument in the debate on climate change is a red herring. As far as I’m aware, the discussions and conclusions, with identification of uncertainties and risks, is all within scientific debate. The scientists supporting the IPCC conclusions, do that on basis of the evidence, discussed, perused, debated and evaluated.

This is different from the situation that Galileo found himself in, or, for that matter, Darwin. Theories, evidence based, were not accepted by groups who did not advance scientific arguments. Certainly the christian church which denounced Galileo did not do that. While Darwin’s theories were scientifically debated, society was not prepared to just accept it on basis of non-scientific arguments, fed again, mainly, by religious arguments. Galileo’s theories were over time accepted based on ongoing scientific observations, debate and advancements. Similarly, evolutionary theory was accepted over time as the scientific arguments of the day against it did not hold up in view of the evidence produced. The arguments nowadays levelled against evolution are non-scientific.

I would therefore rather turn the Galileo argument on it’s head. When the risks and hazards of greenhouse gases emissions led to the warnings of dramatic climate change, they were not generally accepted. The current high number of scientific noses counted among those who accept the conclusions (inclusive of description of risks and uncertainties) is gained on basis of a similar ongoing process of scientific observations and debate as with Galileo’s and Darwin’s theories, and, presumably, with Einstein’s theories (who is every once in while again proven correct). The examples of Galileo and Darwin support, rather than run counter, against acceptance of the IPCC conclusions.

I agree with the arguments made at the beginning of this discussion on basis of Mr. Koonin’s OpEd. Mr. Koonin warns against taking actions, because according to him the science is not settled. The inaccuracies in his article have already been pointed out. I would like to add two other points.

The first are the observations done in the field. One can always argue that a single storm is not evidence of climate change in action. A single Blackbird breeding a month earlier is not evidence of climate change in action. However, a series of increasing storm intensity, and the advance of spring across the board with two to four weeks is pretty supportive. So are field reports and investigations among residents in for instance in the area where I live, Quang Binh, Vietnam, with climate patterns that are changing, certainly when put into time perspective, which is a crucial difference between the current man-made climate change and natural climatic shifts.

The second is the risk factor. Changing the way energy is produced and consumed does not harm the economy, as a number of recent news articles suggest. Such changes have beneficial side effects that go beyond addressing climate change. Even if you don’t accept the risks and dangers currently projected, the benefits of energy changes in other fields are compelling enough to effect them. If you put that against the risks that downplaying the risks and dangers of climate carries if it still happens to be true – land degradation, diminished agricultural output, biodiversity loss, health problems, to name a few – it doesn’t seem sensible to delay actions.

My take on climate change

Do read the Wall Street Journal article of Mr. Koonin, visit Climate Science Watch and read the discussion. Also, don’t forget to watch an excerpt of the Daily Show of Jon Stewart on You Tube, who made fun of and eventually became angry with a U.S House hearing regarding climate change, comparing the Republican-led session to “pushing a million pounds of idiot up a mountain.”

This Amazing Biodiversity lets us exist – Do we want to lose it to Climate Change ?

The title above is the slogan I had put on the first banner I used for my photo sharing website The World is Beautiful and Fragile. And each photo on that banner had a sentence, in which often the message is that the continued existence of that species can be doubted because of the oncoming effects of climate change. For each species it is a question mark. It is without further study – primary, secondary or tertiary – not always possible to confidently state of a species whether it will adapt to climate change or not. I have since changed the banner, but have kept the introductory text on climate change – and you will see this same elephant looking at us, as if asking: and what about me? Because whether one is careful about predicting the demise of species, or whether one is more outspoken (with or without further arguments), the (upcoming) impacts of climate change are hard to overstate.

We are member of the Web of Life

Whether we like it or not, we are one of the hundreds of thousands of species that inhabit this earth, and we, as a species, rely on the ecological role we play as much as other species. Granted, human populations have over time developed lots of technologies to decrease limiting ecological factors. Food and shelter are obvious examples. From caves to huts to buildings, technology allowed lots of people to escape death from weather events, diseases, or, for instance, predators. The development of agriculture allowed a greater control over the availability of food. Food and shelter then, are just two among many factors that allowed people to live longer and in greater numbers.

All species change their environment to a lesser or greater degree to their benefit. Species that dig holes or building nests are essentially doing the same that people did by building houses: controlling access by predators, harmful temperatures, or e.g. storing food. A number of species of ants predate people in actively controlling temperatures inside their dwellings. As for food, certain species of, again, ants, actively control their food supply, by herding aphids. (See for instance http://insects.about.com/od/coolandunusualinsects/f/antsandaphids.htm)

This mutual beneficial relationship between ants and aphids works by ants eating the honeydew secreted by the aphids, and the aphids being protected from predators by the ants

Yet, no species has moved the limits of ecological factors as much as we did. It may seem to some, therefore, that we have freed ourselves of our ecological role, and that, pried loose from the rest of nature, people can always survive.

Such thinking would be a mistake. Despite technological progress, people are and remain organisms that rely on a myriad of things in our immediate or wider environment. Some clear examples include the food we eat. To some it may appear as if food is not constrained by such factors: people visit supermarkets and buy meat, vegetables, rice, bread and a host of other things. Nevertheless, these are agricultural products, needing soil to grow, and their cultivation is determined by the local climate. Even those limits can be moved. Hydroponics is a system where plants can be grown in a watery environment, not needing soil. But even such systems are not free from diseases, and they still need fertilisers, be that organic or industrially manufactured. And besides, it’s hard to see all wheat, rice, potato and corn fields in the world – major staple crops on which the majority of people rely – replaced by a vast system of hydroponics.

Can we imagine our staples grown worldwide as hydroponics ?

Another example form the micro-organisms in our digestive system, without which we would not be able to digest all the food we eat. Micro-organisms can also make us sick, periodically reminding us of those ties with the rest of nature, as the current ebola crisis grimly shows. And there are a good number of micro-organisms and fungi that allows us food items such as wine, cheese, beer, and spirits. Examples can be found too in recent weather events, where flooding cause damage, death and food shortages, and storms destroy houses and shelters, grim reminders of the discomfort and dangers of living without these.

Climate change

And this brings me then back to climate change. If we are so reliant on other organisms, then we should try our utmost best to keep these other organisms. But despite enormous ongoing conservation efforts, it is increasingly more difficult. Habitats are damaged or destroyed. Invasive species – species that do not belong in a given region, but have been introduced there, and thrive – outcompete native species. Overharvesting threatens the survival of certain species, such as is the case with the bluefin tuna – that has its own commission, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas – or whales – which have theirs, the International Whaling Commission, on basis of an international convention, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Nevertheless, as all sorts of projects and programs show, these threats can be countered to a higher or lesser degree.

Climate change, however, has proved sofar to be beyond people’s capacity of arresting its threat by for instance effective behavioural change, or meaningful government policies (i.e. a real global decrease in greenhouse gas emissions). Greenhouse gas emissions are still rising: the World Meteorological Organisation found that in the last decade “the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2013, propelled by a surge in levels of carbon dioxide”. And the world is steadily growing warmer. The famous pause in temperature rise has found to be – as suspected – an expression of the capacity of world’s oceans to store heat. The oceans have gotten warmer, instead of the atmosphere. Once this capacity has been exhausted, warming of the atmosphere will go up, in an accelerated pace.

And this must be clearly said : unless we find the means to suck up enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, climate change cannot be reversedWe can still only try to minimise the changes.

What then can we expect. Sea level rise, of course. Recently, the thawing of an antarctic ice shelf has been assessed as signifying an unstoppable and irreversible process of melt. Also changes in temperatures: record heats and colds have been measured for a number of years. See for instance this map of NOAA with land and ocean temperatures for August 2014:

Red all over

There is hardly an area that is showing the average temperature for August, and the vast majority of territory shows a higher temperature. NOAA goes on to say that “August marked the 38th consecutive August with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The last below-average temperature for August occurred in 1976.” In general the weather has already become, and will be more, unstable with more extremes in heat and cold, drought and excessive rainfall. Just today, an article in The Independent reported on research of Cornell University that concluded that the risks of experiencing megadroughts (droughts that last for 35 years or longer) are now high.

What does this all mean for biodiversity?

The Convention on Biological Diversity says this on its website:

“It is now widely recognized that climate change and biodiversity are interconnected. Biodiversity is affected by climate change, with negative consequences for human well-being, but biodiversity, through the ecosystem services it supports, also makes an important contribution to both climate-change mitigation and adaptation. Consequently, conserving and sustainably managing biodiversity is critical to addressing climate change.”

Deepening all that is something for a next post. For now I just wonder which species will have enough adaptability to maintain ecosystem functions, considering that where species have evolved in the context of slower processes than the current climate change one, which operates on a timescale of significant environmental changes in decades rather than in millennia. And where attention goes, naturally, to easily to see or notice species or groups (mammals, fish, shellfish, agricultural crops), lots of other species or groups don’t get the attention they deserve: fungi, butterflies, bees, bacteria.

Climate change action

The IPCC, Cornell University of the megadrought report, and a host of other authors and institutions predict enormous problems for the coming decades. Agriculture will be severely affected. The food security as we have known it in the developed world since after World War II will disappear. And we haven’t even talked yet about the seas and oceans growing more acid, effecting fish and shellfish populations. Seen from these apocalyptic perspectives, all the ongoing things like the genteel Scottish independence, brutally establishing an islamic caliphate, or e.g. surreptitiously bringing back the Soviet Union, seem like futile struggles, whose importance and realisation will pale once climate change effects begin to bite more intense.

Clearly, it seems, there is reason for climate change action. The UN is trying to lay the grounds for a meaningful global agreement in 2015 as of 23 september. Not everyone is convinced that politicians will do enough. Avaaz, an activist online-petition network, organises an online petition to submit to the UN – which you can sign here – and seeks to galvanise and coordinate protest-events world-wide so you can find one near you to join it.