October research news from the Ecological Society of America
October 20, 2021
For immediate release
Contact: Heidi Swanson, (202) 833-8773 ext. 211, gro.asenull@idieh
Why the tropics contain more fleshy fruits
Author contact: Bo Wang (nc.ude.uhanull@eulbgnay)
For decades, scientists have speculated about the reason that wild tropical fruits are more likely to be fleshy (think bananas, avocados, tomatoes) than fruits from temperate plants (like acorns, sunflowers, and legumes). Theories have attributed the difference to, among other things, the tropics’ warm climate, their abundant fruit-eating animals, or simply a chance association. A new study based on data from thousands of Southwestern Chinese species shows that one reason outweighs all the others: lineage. Closely related plants tend to produce the same type of fruit, leading family trees to determine where fleshy fruits dominate.
Why it matters: Understanding why plant forms and traits vary regionally sheds light on global patterns of biodiversity.
Grass, with a side of insects, are on cows’ menus
Author contact: Moshe Inbar (li.ca.afiah.hcraesernull@rabnim)
Cattle, it appears, consume more than just plants. New research, based on DNA sequencing of fresh cow patties, has found that cows commonly ingest a wide variety of insects and other plant-dwelling arthropods like spiders. Over three-fourths of the analyzed cow pies contained arthropod DNA, with more immobile groups, like caterpillars and insects that feed inside plant tissues, frequently consumed. Cattle are probably not seeking these invertebrates out; still, this incidental predation could have big consequences for both the cows and their prey.
Why it matters: The contribution of insects to mammalian grazers’ diets has never been measured before. The results suggest that these herbivores should actually be thought of as omnivores.
From Ecological Applications:
Untrammeled wilderness faces a future of human-driven change
Author contact: Jocelyn Aycrigg (ude.ohadiunull@ggircya)
The U.S. National Wilderness Preservation System was originally conceived to protect large natural areas free of human impact. But with land use and land cover changes proceeding right outside wilderness boundaries, and climate change happening everywhere, wilderness managers have the hard task of determining how much change a given area faces, and what to do about it. A new study ranks nearly all of the 700+ wilderness areas in the contiguous U.S. in terms of projected land use changes, shifts in vegetation, and climatic changes, and finds that even the most remote will be impacted in the coming decades.
Why it matters: Wilderness managers in the U.S. are responsible for maintaining their reserves’ untrammeled character, even as all of these reserves face multiple forms of human-driven change in the near future.
Restoring form and function to seagrass beds
Author contact: Kathryn Beheshti (ude.cscunull@thsehebk)
There is growing appreciation for the roles that seagrass ecosystems play, from stabilizing sediment to sheltering commercially important fish and crustaceans. As a result, restoring degraded seagrass is now a top priority in many coastal areas, but how quickly restoration pays off (if at all) is not clear. By tracking the progress of two restoration experiments in California’s Elkhorn Slough, researchers found that in just three years restored beds not only physically resembled their target state, they also functioned like proper seagrass beds, attracting fauna and altering water quality.
Why it matters: Seagrass beds provide important ecosystem services, but restoration efforts often fail. Successful restorations serve as blueprints for future measures.
From Ecological Monographs:
Sensors in the sky detect soil processes underground
Author contact: Jeannine Cavender-Bares (ude.nmunull@rednevac)
Airborne sensors can be used to “see” belowground, based on the properties of aboveground vegetation, new research shows. Aerial images of two grasslands, in Minnesota and Nebraska, captured the physical structure, chemical variation, and even species mix of grassland vegetation visible aboveground; these properties were then successfully used to predict traits of the soil below, like the biomass of microbial life and the rate of nutrient cycling. Researchers are hopeful that remote sensing will offer a way to measure soil properties across huge spatial scales, helping to explain patterns of aboveground biodiversity and giving a more complete picture of overall ecosystem function.
Why it matters: Soil ecology is integral to how ecosystems operate, but it is difficult to measure at large scales. Remote sensing could change that.
The fiery future of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
Author contact: Monica Turner (ude.csiwnull@gmrenrut)
A new study tackles the challenge of forecasting how much, and how quickly, the Yellowstone region’s forests will respond to the changing climate. Running a detailed computer model of the forests and wildfire under expected future climate conditions, the study predicts that drier weather and more frequent fire will drive a ratchet-like series of abrupt declines in forest structure, followed by longer-term declines in forest extent and carbon storage. Not all is lost, however; this fate could be partly avoided if greenhouse gas emissions can be controlled.
Why it matters: As the mountain West becomes more arid in coming years, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which spans millions of acres across three states, faces transformational change via fire.
The Ecological Society of America, founded in 1915, is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge, committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 9,000 member Society publishes five journals and a membership bulletin and broadly shares ecological information through policy, media outreach, and education initiatives. The Society’s Annual Meeting attracts 4,000 attendees and features the most recent advances in ecological science. Visit the ESA website at https://www.esa.org.