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Taller Arctic Plants Could Speed Dangerous Warming Feedback Loop

Climate
Taller Arctic Plants Could Speed Dangerous Warming Feedback Loop
ilya_ktsn / CC BY 2.0

Climate change is giving Arctic plants a growth spurt.

A study published in Nature Wednesday examined seven key plant characteristics over 30 years of warming at 117 locations in the Arctic or alpine tundra and found that plants were growing taller at all locations studied.


The international team of scientists, led by Aarhus University in Denmark as well as researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center in Frankfurt, also found that taller plant species like vernal sweetgrass, common in the European lowlands, are moving north to locations in Iceland and Sweden, according to a University of Edinburgh press release.

"Quantifying the link between environment and plant traits is critical to understanding the consequences of climate change, but such research has rarely extended into the Northern hemisphere, home to the planet's coldest tundra ecosystems. This is the first time that a biome-scale study has been carried out to get to the root of the critical role that plants play in this rapidly warming part of the planet," University of Edinburgh School of GeoSciences researcher Isla Myers-Smith said in the press release.

Florida International University (FIU) ecologist Steven Oberbauer, who participated in the research, said the increased plant height had serious implications for the state of Arctic soil.

Arctic plants are historically small because the frozen soil does not release many nutrients, but as it thaws, it releases more plant food, as well as something much more dangerous.

"Cold and wet tundra soil holds large amounts of organic carbon as peat. But, as temperatures rise and the soil thaws, the organic matter decomposes, releasing the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, causing further warming," Oberbauer said in a FIU press release emailed to EcoWatch. "We're better off if things stay frozen."

Plant height could actually speed up as well as signal the warming process. Taller plants trap snow, which insulates the soil and prevents it from freezing as quickly, the University of Edinburgh press release said.

And the plants are only expected to grow taller as temperatures warm.

"If taller plants continue to increase at the current rate, the plant community height could increase by 20 to 60 percent by the end of the century," Anne Bjorkman of the Climate Research Center said in the University of Edinburgh press release.

The research comes as concern grows about the release of methane from melting Arctic permafrost, which contains 30 to 50 percent of the world's soil carbon, according to the University of Edinburgh.

A study published in August found that greenhouse gas emissions from lakes formed from melting permafrost could more than double the estimate of how much carbon the Arctic thaw would release into the atmosphere.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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