Amazonian Tree With Human-Sized Leaves Finally Gets New Species Recognition
By Shreya Dasgupta
At the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA) in Manaus, Brazil, a framed exhibit of a massive dried leaf has been a local attraction for decades. But the complete identity of the tree it belongs to remained unresolved — until now.
Researchers have known that the tree is a species of Coccoloba, a genus of flowering plants that grow in the tropical forests of the Americas. Botanists from INPA first encountered an individual of the unknown Coccoloba tree in 1982 while surveying the Madeira River Basin in the Brazilian Amazon. They spotted more individuals of the plant over subsequent expeditions in the 1980s. But they couldn't pinpoint the species at the time. The individual trees weren't bearing any flowers or fruits then, parts that are essential to describing a plant species, and their leaves were too large to dehydrate, press and carry back to INPA. The researchers did take notes and photographs.
In 1993, botanists managed to finally collect two large leaves from a tree in the state of Rondônia, which they then framed for public viewing at INPA. "The species became locally famous, but due to the lack of reproductive material it could not be described as a new species for science," Rogério Gribel, a researcher at INPA, told Mongabay in an email.
It was more than a decade later, in 2005, that Gribel and his colleague, Carlos Alberto Cid Ferreira, collected some seeds and dying flowers from a tree in Jamari National Forest. Again, these materials weren't good enough to describe the plant species. So they sowed the seeds at the INPA campus, grew the seedlings, and waited. Their patience bore fruit 13 years later. Literally.
In 2018, one of the planted trees flourished and fruited, Gribel said, finally giving them the botanical material they needed to describe the new species.
"We are very happy and proud that after the long period of 'tracking' such a peculiar and relatively rare species, we have finally succeeded in obtaining the flowers and fruits that are the essential structures for describing a new species for science," he said.
Gribel and his colleagues, who described the species in a recent paper published in Acta Amazonica, have named it C. gigantifolia in reference to the plant's giant leaves.
The researchers say that C. gigantifolia, which grows to about 15 meters (49 feet) in height and has leaves that can reach 2.5 meters (8 feet) in length, likely has the largest known leaf among dicotyledonous plants — a large group of flowering plants that include sunflowers, hibiscus, tomatoes and roses. These plants have seeds that can be split into two identical halves, each forming the first two embryonic leaves of the seedling, and their leaves generally have branched veins. The seeds of monocotyledonous plants, by contrast, give out a single embryonic leaf and the grown plants' leaves have parallel veins, such as those of palm trees, grasses, orchids and bananas.
"Comparing leaf size between species is often difficult as there is a large individual variation in leaf size within the same species," Gribel said. "It is possible that this leadership of Coccoloba gigantifolia will be challenged in the future. For example, species of Gunnera, a genus of wide distribution worldwide, also exhibit huge leaves. But the Gunnera species are not arboreal."
Although C. gigantifolia has been known to the public and the scientific community for nearly four decades, describing it formally and giving it an official name was an essential step to complete.
"A known but undescribed species is like a person without a birth certificate or ID; it is like a person who does not formally have their identity recognized," Gribel said. "For example, in Brazil there is currently a major effort by the scientific community to catalog the national flora. Although known for many years, Coccoloba gigantifolia could not so far be added to the Brazilian Plant List by the scientists participating of this great initiative."
Without a formal identity, it's also difficult to assess the plant's conservation status. "Initiatives to prevent its extinction are also impaired if the plant has no scientific name," Gribel said. "Similarly, measures to regulate collection, trade, transport, planting, etc. depend on species recognition as a single taxonomic entity."
With the formal description in place, the researchers say that the species is likely rare and has a high risk of extinction. Individuals of C. gigantifolia have been recorded only from the Madeira River Basin in the Brazilian states of Amazonas and Rondônia — areas currently impacted by infrastructure projects such as hydroelectric dams, roads and expanding agriculture.
"The middle and low stretches of the Madeira River still have much of their forest conserved but deforestation has been growing rapidly in these areas, especially in northeastern Rondônia and southern Amazonas," Gribel said. "The Samuel Dam in the Jamari River (and possibly the Santo Antonio and Jirau Dams in the Madeira River) flooded tens of thousands of hectares of forests with Coccoloba gigantifolia and may have negatively affected the populations. The ongoing paving of the BR319 highway will increase deforestation throughout the Middle and Lower Madeira region."
Based on these threats, and on the findings that the species is rare and likely has disjointed populations occurring in a rapidly changing landscape, the authors have recommended listing the species as endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Researchers found Coccoloba gigantifolia at two spots close to the Madeira River and BR-319: near Manaus in Amazonas state (inset A) and Porto Velho in Rondônia (inset B). Satellite data from the University of Maryland show that these areas have experienced heavy deforestation over the past couple decades. Source: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch.
Zooming in on the northern site (inset A on the map above) reveals areas of recent forest loss encroaching on the approximate locations where researchers recorded the newly described species. Source: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch; Melo et al., 2019.
Coccoloba gigantifolia was also recorded in two spots near Porto Velho. The region is part of the so-called "arc of deforestation," where agricultural expansion has razed much of the rainforest along the underbelly of the Brazilian Amazon. The northernmost of these sites is in an unprotected area that was flooded by the Samuel hydroelectric dam in the 1990s. The other site is located within Jamari National Forest near a wetland (blue inset) that is showing signs of forest loss. Sources: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch; Melo et al., 2019.
Satellite imagery shows water levels of the wetland near where Coccoloba gigantifolia was found in Jamari National Forest were far lower in October 2019 than in years past. Source: Planet Labs.
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
By Bill McKibben
To understand the planetary importance of this autumn's presidential election, check the calendar. Voting ends on November 3—and by a fluke of timing, on the morning of November 4 the United States is scheduled to pull out of the Paris Agreement.
President Trump announced that we would abrogate our Paris commitments during a Rose Garden speech in 2017. But under the terms of the accords, it takes three years to formalize the withdrawal. So on Election Day it won't be just Americans watching: The people of the world will see whether the country that has poured more carbon into the atmosphere than any other over the course of history will become the only country that refuses to cooperate in the one international effort to do something about the climate crisis.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Oliver Milman
The climate crisis is set to be a significant factor in a U.S. presidential election for the first time, with new polling showing a clear majority of American voters want decisive action to deal with the threats posed by global heating.
Do you support or oppose each of the following policies as part of the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzODcyMC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNjg4MzY4OX0.B-bt9mltOhK0MHFbzK8G3_8sBkDAeUsAWm-AhNZYoxQ/img.png?width=980" id="acd43" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8724178274b9f96e27055f74a1bafe20" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
America's largest national forest, Tongass National Forest in Alaska, will be opened up to logging and road construction after the Trump administration finalizes its plans to open up the forest on Friday, according to The New York Times.
Aerial view of the Tongass National Forest. Alan Wu / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
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By Ruby Russell and Ajit Niranjan
Hamstrung by coronavirus lockdowns, frustrated school strikers have spent months staging digital protests against world leaders failing to act urgently on climate change.
Pandemic Stalls Protests<p>Last November, the head of the UN Environment Program was among the public and scientific figures to warn that 2020 offered a last chance to cut emissions. Then, few could have suspected this deadline would coincide with an unprecedented public health emergency.</p><p>The pandemic has <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/tough-times-ahead-for-climate-protesters-during-corona-pandemic/a-52978469" target="_blank">dealt climate activism a blow</a>. Niedeggen says that as a movement demanding that the world act on scientific advice, the school strikers took lockdown restrictions extremely seriously, halted public protests immediately and took their activism online.</p><p>On April 24, Fridays for Future organized a "digital strike," with Niedeggen hosting a that racked up close to a quarter of a million views. "We were not physically standing together, but we were all fighting together," she says.</p><p><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/climate-strikers-get-inventive-during-the-covid-19-crisis-fridays-for-future/a-53229262" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Activists also gathered thousands of placards</a> from across Germany to lay out in front of the German Bundestag around the central slogan: "Fight every crisis."</p>
Opportunity for a New Normal<p>Last September's Global Climate Strike drew young and old protestors around the world, with organizers estimating a global turnout of 7.6 million, including an estimated 270,000 people in Berlin. Activists have adjusted this year's event to account for social distancing and different levels of coronavirus restrictions in cities taking part.</p><p>They say COVID-19 also presents opportunities.</p><p>"The pandemic shows that we can change our normal daily life, and we are very able to adjust to a situation of crisis," she says. The key question is how economies get back on their feet: "We have the possibility to build a new normal, to build a renewable world order, and an environmentally just, climate-just normal for everybody."</p><p>In July, Jeng was among 20 female Fridays for Future activists from the Global South to sign an open letter to G20 finance ministers warning that their decisions in "exclusive backrooms" over stimulus packages and corporate bailouts would "lock in development pathways for decades."</p><p>"The system is not broken, it was built to be unjust. We don't need recovery, we need a reboot," the letter reads, stressing that "black people, indigenous peoples and people of color," have been disproportionately hit by the economic, climate and coronavirus crises. </p>
Policy 'Not Quite There Yet'<p>Figures on stimulus spending do not suggest their words had much impact. The ministers were criticized for failing to relieve the debt of poorer countries, and according to <a href="https://www.energypolicytracker.org/region/g20/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Policy Tracker</a>, G20 countries by August had pledged $169 billion (142 billion euros) to fossil fuels since the beginning of the pandemic.</p><p>Katrin Uba, associate professor of political science at Uppsala University in Sweden, is researching Fridays for Future. She says that despite the movement raising awareness and gaining access to policymakers, real policy change "is not there yet."</p><p>Still, she stresses that social movements go through waves of mobilization as public attention on their core issues ebbs and flows. And perhaps one of Fridays for Future's biggest achievements is birthing a politically active generation that will keep the fight up long after corona becomes a memory. </p><p>"We know clearly from our research that many of the people who came to the streets hadn't done any protesting before in their lives," she told DW. "And we also know that if you do one protest, you are likely to do more."</p>
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This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.
1. Kiss the Ground<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc5f0c92a5603e68aec39e56b0db02a"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K3-V1j-zMZw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 22</strong></p><p>Between <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wildfires-california-washington-oregon-photos-2647585008.html" target="_self">wildfires devastating the U.S. West Coast</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tropical-storm-beta-landfall-2647760268.html" target="_self">storms battering the Gulf</a>, the impacts of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change/" target="_self">climate crisis</a> can feel overwhelming right now. <em><a href="https://kissthegroundmovie.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Kiss the Ground</a> </em>offers an alternative to all of the bad news by focusing on solutions.</p><p>The film, directed by Josh and Rebecca Tickell and narrated by Woody Harrelson, explains how we can heal the Earth through "regenerative agriculture," farming practices that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into soil as a way to restore soil health, which in turn boosts ecosystems and food supplies.</p><p>"<em>Kiss the Ground </em>shows how feasible it is to make these changes at a grassroots level immediately and make a truly substantive impact with low cost and easy to implement solutions," Executive Producer RJ Jain said in an email. "This is why I got involved."</p>
2. Public Trust: The Fight for America's Public Lands<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5338f7a2931e356910026e5fd76fac56"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jsKMTAaj_wQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: YouTube</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 25</strong></p><p>This <a href="https://www.patagonia.com/films/public-trust/" target="_blank">award-winning documentary</a> tells the stories of Indigenous activists, journalists, whistleblowers and historians working to protect America's <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/public-lands" target="_self">public lands</a>. The film focuses on three political struggles: the shrinking of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/bears-ears" target="_self">Bears Ears</a> National Monument in Utah, the mining of Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and the opening of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Arctic-National-Wildlife-Refuge" target="_self">Arctic National Wildlife Refuge</a> to fossil fuel exploration.</p><p><em>Public Trust</em> was directed by David Garrett Byars and produced by Jeremy Rubingh. Patagonia Films, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and actor Robert Redford are executive producers. It will be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">released</a> on YouTube in time for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/national-public-lands-day-2640656776.html" target="_self">National Public Lands Day</a>.</p><p>"Our country is fortunate to have millions of acres of public lands, including National Parks, Monuments, Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness set aside for future generations," Redford said. "Sadly, these lands that belong to you and me are under unprecedented threats from the greed of big corporations, eager to weaken restrictions in the pursuit of profits. Many of our current politicians are also to blame. <em>Public Trust</em> tells the story of citizens who are fighting back. It's a much-needed wake-up call for all of us who want to preserve our unique and wild cultural heritage."<br><br>It will be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY" target="_blank">released</a> on YouTube at 2 p.m. EDT Friday in time for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/national-public-lands-day-2640656776.html" target="_self">National Public Lands Day</a>.<br></p>
3. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="156438a30836a765d7a92982545fc334"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/B_OFZvAd05Y?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Oct. 4</strong></p><p>Beloved nature broadcaster <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/David-Attenborough" target="_self">David Attenborough</a> has spent his career introducing viewers to the wonders of our planet. In recent years, his footage of albatrosses swallowing <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastics" target="_self">plastic</a> in <em>Blue Planet II</em> has been credited with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/2018-fighting-plastic-waste-2624606566.html" target="_self">helping to ramp up</a> the global fight against plastic pollution. Now, in this <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">World Wildlife Fund</a> (WWF)-produced <a href="https://www.attenborough.film/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">documentary</a>, he reflects on the defining moments of his career and the devastating changes he has witnessed.</p><p><em>David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,</em> which was also produced by Silverback Films and directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey, features an intimate conversation between Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin as the broadcaster reflects on his life and a career that took him to every continent on Earth. In addition to streaming on Netflix, the movie will be available in select theaters starting Sept. 28.</p><p>"For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide, but there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections," WWF executive producer Colin Butfield said in a <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/david-attenborough-life-our-planet" target="_blank">statement</a>. "This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action as world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time."</p>
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