“I know one thing, that I know nothing”, said Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. While we may think that we know just a bit more about nature since the times of Ancient Greeks so many hundred years ago, conservationists, environmentalists and researchers still get surprised with findings they discover while studying our planet.
New stressors such as climate change, deforestation, intensive land-use and resource extraction as well as habitat destruction are creating new stressors for our environment, leading habitats and species to adapt their patterns of behaviour often in surprising ways! Here are some of the biggest surprises scientists have come across on the road to conservation of ecosystems.
Plants moving to warmer climates
We often talk about the impact of rising temperatures on our flora and fauna. The assumption is that plants and animals will seek cooler climates to mitigate the impacts of climate change. But turns out that not all species flee rising temperatures.
Over 40 years, researchers at the University of Washington collected data about the location of nearly 300 plants across different regions in western North America and compared their findings with changing climate conditions, such as temperature, rain, and snowfall. The study revealed that more than 60% of plants shifted their distributions toward warmer climates and lower elevations— this is despite significant climate warming across the regions under study. In fact, all plants within a region moved in the same direction[sc:1]. It would appear that this was due to changes in waterfall that accompanied warming temperatures.
The study provides growing evidence that temperature is not the only factor influencing how life on our planet will respond to climate change. We are in for some great surprises – and it is pretty clear that a lot of them will not be pleasant or predictable!
The limits of natural CO2 absorption
We often talk about our planet’s green lungs – our trees and forests. To this we should add also the potential of the soil in absorbing CO2 and therefore helping reduce the impacts of climate change. But evidence is now suggesting that the capacity of our trees and soil to absorb CO2 is more limited than once thought and in fact in many ways it is being curtailed.
Research now suggests that the soil’s potential to soak up CO2 has been overestimated by as much as 40%[sc:2] while it would appear that trees cannot absorb as much CO2 as the planet gets warmer[sc:3]. The role of both trees and soil was a critical component in developing our approach to mitigating and stopping climate change. For example, the fact that trees absorb CO2 meant that we are getting a 50% discount on the climate impact of our fossil fuel. But it now appears that our efforts to increase tree cover will not give us an equivalent level of CO2 reductions. The capacity of trees to absorb CO2 is weakening, and while the reasons might be linked to more CO2 being available in the atmosphere, it is clear that this will have a tremendous impact on how we deal with climate change.
Freshwater system surprises
Marine environment research is providing data that suggests that in some cases different stressors to ecosystems can act together to produce unexpected effects on aquatic ecosystems. In many cases, different stressors act antagonistically which means that their combined effect can cancel or reduce some or all of their individual effects. The greatest ecological surprise, however, is when stressors lead to a reversal of environmental impacts caused by the individual stressors. Whilst reversals are the least common type of interaction observed, their existence has potentially important effects for environmental management. The stressor most commonly associated with reversal interactions was climate warming. For example, a study in 2008 found that warming reversed the negative effects of excess nitrogen supply on phytoplankton growth.
Dogs working for conservation
Environmentalists have started seeking the help of man’s best friend to help conservation efforts. Dogs are helping scientists verify information about an endangered species of killer whales. This specific whale species has come under pressure as they exhibit some of the highest levels of accumulated toxins such as pesticides and flame retardants. But to study this, scientists needed to find whale faeces. Sniffer dogs stand at the bow of the boat and helps researchers locate it[sc:5]!
Dogs are also helping the critically endangered Cross River Gorilla which lives on the border between Nigeria and Cameroon. These gorillas are hard to find so scientists took a group of specially trained dogs, and set them to work searching for gorilla faeces, in order to help monitor the surviving population[sc:5].