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Climate Change Causes Chain Reaction in Ecosystems

Climate

A collaborative study released yesterday involving scientists from the Cambridge Conservation Initiative has shown that climate change is altering species distributions and populations, seemingly through shifting interactions between species rather than direct responses to climate.

The study shows that many of the climate-related impacts on a given species occur as a result of changes in other species within the ecosystem, which then cascade through the food chain.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The study, led by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and involving Fauna & Flora International, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Royal Society for Protection of Birds and BirdLife International, as well as Cambridge University, reviewed almost 150 published studies of climatic impacts on natural populations.

An ecosystem is made up of a multitude of species interacting with each other. This study has shown that many of the climate-related impacts on a given species occur as a result of changes in population and behavior of other species within the ecosystem, which then cascade through the food chain.

For example, Arctic fox populations have been affected by declining lemming populations (which is linked to changes in snow cover) and by expanding red fox populations. In the UK, upland birds such as the golden plover are affected by increasing summer temperatures, which causes problems for their crane fly prey.

These disruptions particularly affect predatory species, and appear to have worsened with climate change. Dr James Pearce-Higgins of the BTO said, “Although it might be assumed that most species are responding directly to climatic changes, either as individuals move to keep within their favoured climate zone, or through survival and reproductive rates linked closely to these climatic variables, this does not account for the majority of impacts. Instead, the main impacts of climate change occur through altered interactions between species within an ecosystem.”

Importantly, since much conservation action is already about managing species’ populations (such as controlling invasive species or reducing predation risk), we already have the conservation tools in place to reduce the impacts of climate change on species.

This understanding therefore provides hope that we can help the most vulnerable species adapt to climate change—providing that the magnitude of climate change is not too great, and that conservation activity is sufficiently funded.

For example, in the UK uplands, degraded peatland habitats can be restored to boost invertebrate crane fly populations and increase their resilience to climate change.

Whilst this work also helps identify the types of species most vulnerable to climate change impacts, there remains a lack of information from the tropics, where most species occur. Increased monitoring and research in tropical regions will therefore be essential.

“This study highlights a need to consider the often complex ecological relationships between species when assessing the impacts of climate change on wildlife,” says Jamie Carr of the IUCN, a co-author on the study. “Most research to date has focused on the direct impacts of changing conditions, which may mean that important emerging threats are being overlooked.”

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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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