Why Wild Plant Ancestors Need Protection
By Tim Radford
Only a small percentage of the wild plant ancestors vital to human life can be considered safe from extinction.
Botanists who have monitored the conservation status of almost 7,000 species—the wild forerunners of plants that humans use for food, medicine, shelter, fuel and livestock feed—found that most could be counted as not properly conserved and protected.
And another wild plant—perhaps the most valuable of all at price per measured weight—could be eliminated for ever by climate change driven by profligate human combustion of fossil fuels. The prized Mediterranean truffle may disappear from the woodlands of France, Spain and Italy by 2100, according to a separate study.
All the world's most important crops are selected, bred and cultivated from wild ancestors: these original forerunners remain a significant reservoir of genes that could be important to a species' survival.
But when researchers came to measure progress in global conservation goals, they found that only three species in 100 could be counted as "sufficiently conserved."
Many of these wild originals are of global commercial importance. They include the wild relatives of billion-dollar crops such as coffee, chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon and even the little fir most favored in Europe as a Christmas tree.
Colin Khoury, a specialist in biodiversity at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia, and colleagues report in the journal Ecological Indicators that they drew on some of the 43 million records of 6,941 plants of socio-economic importance or cultural value—in effect, plants that make money for people—in 220 countries.
Under UN sustainable development guidelines, and as targets set by the Convention on Biological Diversity, the nations of the world agreed to meet a series of ambitious conservation goals by 2020.
The scientists devised a Useful Plants Indicator which sorted wild crop ancestors into their status as conserved species in national parks or protected forests, and as specimens in gene banks, botanical gardens and so on.
Coffee in Peril
They found that the wild coffee plants Coffea liberica and Coffea arabica were far from safe, and 32 other coffee species were also rated as nowhere near sufficiently protected: two thirds of the coffee species were not recorded in gene banks at all.
Much the same was true for Theobroma cacao, the wild ancestor of the chocolate of the tropical Americas, the flavoring bean Vanilla planiofolia and the wild spice cinnamon, or Cinnamomum verra. Unexpectedly, the fir Abies nordmanniana, alias the Nordmann fir or Christmas tree, is in an even more precarious situation in the wild: the researchers rate it as one of the high priority species for conservation.
Some of the species were—for the time being—protected in national parks but not collected safely in gene banks and botanical gardens. But as the world warms, and climates change, the species may have to shift their range into landscapes at hazard from ecosystem disruption.
"The indicator shows that the network of protected areas around the world is doing something significant for useful plants," Khoury said. "But if we want to get serious about protecting these species, especially the ones that are vulnerable, we have a long way to go before they are fully protected."
Meanwhile, the truffle species Tuber melanosporum—trading at more than £1,000 (US$1,300) per kilogram—could be lost to commerce within a generation or two: a new study in the journal Science of the Total Environment found that under the most likely global warming scenarios the climate of its native habitat will become warmer and drier, and production of the wild and farmed species could dwindle by between 78 percent and 100 percent between 2071 and 2100.
Paul Thomas, of the University of Stirling, who has already tested black truffle plantations in Scotland, studied 36 years of truffle harvest records to reach his bleak conclusion.
He warns that the collapse of the truffle harvest could happen even earlier, thanks to the heatwaves, forest fires, droughts, pests and diseases that come with climate change. Europe risks losing an industry worth hundreds of millions along with an iconic species and a regional way of life.
"This is a wake-up call to the impacts of climate change in the not-too-distant future," Thomas said. "These findings indicate that conservational initiatives are required to form some protection of this important and iconic species."
World's Largest Greenhouse Reopens to Safeguard Earth's Rarest and Most Threatened Plants https://t.co/4WzrxApIiQ @botanyone @kewgardens— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1525645502.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.