Farmland to Forest… or Maybe Not?

When farmland is abandoned it’s a new start for wildlife; it creates a new landscape for secondary succession to occur. But, how does the activities that took place on the land before abandonment effect the future growth and biodiversity of the land? The actions on the land when it was being managed have many effects on the land after abandonment.

Ecological succession is the process of change in the species structure of an ecological community over time, and second succession is succession resulting from a seed bank. In order for succession to take place, the soil in which the plants will grow must be healthy, however, farmland is not known to have healthy soil for natural wildlife due to the agricultural activities that take place.

Secondary Succession

Agricultural practices causes soil to be changed or negatively affected, causing secondary succession to develop more slowly. Here is a small list of the agricultural practices and their affects that cause harm to soil:
Tilling(plowing): linked to disruptions in the habitat space for soil organisms, such as earthworms, which helps seeds to germinate.
-Herbicides+pesticides: have various non-target effects on an ecosystem, such as soil destruction and harmful effects on animals and plants, which can persist over long periods of time.
-Fertilizers: change the chemical makeup and pH levels of soil, creating difficulty for many species to grow.
-Livestock: change the course of growth for many species, and this is due to their waste, grazing, and veterinarian interventions.

Effects of Agricultural Practices on Soil Health

Agricultural practices, such as the ones mentioned, create a barrier for natural wildlife to develop. Although it may take longer and organisms may have to overcome more barriers, abandoned farmland is a great place for secondary succession to happen. Abandoning farmland may be worrisome at first, but the benefits greatly outweigh the costs. Benefits include active reforestation, water regulation, soil recovery, nutrient cycling and increased biodiversity and wilderness, while the biggest downside to abandoning farmland is reduced agricultural security. It is time to put the environment and other species above our own needs, and time to stop practicing harmful activities. We have a chance to reinvent the landscape of abandoned farmlands, and instead of developing on these lands, we should let nature take its course and redevelop into the natural beauty it can be, even if it takes a couple of decades to be what it once was.

References:

  1. Tu M, Hurd C, Randall JM. 2001. Weed Control Methods Handbook: Tools & Techniques for Use in Natural Areas. The Nature Conservancy Wildland Invasive Species Team. <http://tncweeds.ucdavis.edu/handbook.html>.
  2. Ericson, Jenny. “Managing Invasive Plants.” Official Web Page of the U S Fish and Wildlife Service, Feb. 2009, www.fws.gov/invasives/stafftrainingmodule/methods/chemical/review.html.
  3. “HOW FARMING AFFECTS SOIL LIFE.” Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board, 2019, dairy.ahdb.org.uk/technical-information/grassland-management/healthy-grassland-soils/life-beneath-your-land/impact-of-farming-on-soil-quality/how-farming-affects-soil-life/.
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Kudzu: An Invasive Species With Useful Properties

Kudzu, also known as Japanese arrowroot, is an invasive plant species originating from East and Southeast Asia.  In its native environment kudzu is a useful plant, it helps the ecosystem by resisting erosion and increasing nutrient content in the soil.  Kudzu can also be used for animal feed, its long vines used to weave baskets, and the plant fibers used for making paper.  Kudzu is edible, in parts of East Asia the roots are ground up and used as starch to make mochi, and the flowers are also used to make jelly.  Kudzu has also been used in traditional medicine, producing tea from the roots that contains isoflavones. 

However, since the intentional introduction of Kudzu to the US for the purposes to stop soil erosion in the 1930s, the plant has become an invasive species.  Kudzu vines spread rapidly and covers the area around them, killing other plants by blocking their access to the Sun.  Since then, the plant has been found in most areas in the South Eastern US and has been found on the Canadian shores of Lake Erie in 2009.  Kudzu has also been found in Australia, New Zealand, Italy, and Switzerland.  

In order to clear Kudzu completely, the root crown of the plant has to be removed otherwise the plant can regrow.  This can be done by hand or mechanically, or by using chemical herbicides.  An experimental fungal herbicide also appears to be effective in removing Kudzu without harming other plants.  Although burning is not advised, repeated consistent harvesting to replete the nutrients is also effective.  Kudzu is invasive in the wild, but in its natural habitat the plant provides many useful functions for the ecosystem and for human uses. 

The Effects of Climate Change on the Tundra

Climate change has caused numerous observable impacts on the environment.  The increased temperatures have had the greatest effect on areas that are generally cold, such as the tundra biome.  In Antarctica, the rate of the loss of ice mass from 1992 to 2006 has increased by 59% in West Antarctica, and increased by 140% in the Antarctic Peninsula (Rignot et al., 2008).  General impacts in tundra biomes include the decrease in height and size of deciduous shrubs and graminoids, a decrease in moss and lichen cover, and decreased species diversity.  This was caused by a 1-3°C increase in air temperatures, and the effects could be observed after only two years.

These changes in temperatures cannot be attributed to the Earth’s natural climate fluctuations alone.  Climate change has been primary caused by humans releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which trap more heat from the Sun, raising temperatures through a process called the greenhouse effect.  Other anthropomorphic impacts that have also contributed to climate change include pollution, urban expansion into natural areas, poor management practices, and rapid increases in human populations. 

If temperatures continue to rise, irreversible damage will be done to various ecosystems around the world.  Many species will be forced to relocate to more suitable conditions or face the risk of extinction, and biomes such as the tundra will lose more of their biodiversity.

Something I Remembered from Plant Bio

Pollen grains are produced by seed bearing plants:  angiosperms and gymnosperms.  They are microgametophytes that contain the genetic material of male plants from the sporophyte generation.  The pollen grains are encased in two layers; the extine is the outer later and is composed of sporopollenin, a complex polymer, and the inner layer called the intine.  The walls of the pollen grain protect it from drying out and are able to resist chemical degradation so the pollen can successfully be transported to the stigma of female plants.  Pollination can be mediated by animal pollinators which include bees, ants, butterflies, beetles, hummingbirds, and other small vertebrates; pollination can also be conducted by abiotic factors such as wind or water.

Pollen identification allows the reconstruction of past plant abundances from pollen fossils due to their resilience.  In addition, identification of pollen on their animal pollinators could help ecologists determine the distribution and dispersal ability of the plant species.  Furthermore, identifying pollen would be helpful to those with pollen allergies.  Pollen can be indentified in labs by using safranin to dye the pollen, followed with microscopy. 

            The pollen lab in BIOL2010 was interesting but very tedious.  It was very difficult to see the pores and furrows on the outer layer of the pollen grains under the microscope.  It would often be hard to distinguish the features described on the guide, and identification would eventually devolve into a guessing game rather than a scientific method.  The material on the pollen lab ended up not being on the lab exam, so in the end the whole thing felt somewhat useless.  It ended up being memorable, however.

Ecological restoration of plant communities, including policy and politics

Majority of the ecological restoration projects surrounding plant communities are the result of developers involved with the development project hoping to retain or revive some of the biodiversity that has been lost to develop the land. There are major factors in play here, with many people hoping for varying outcomes. This is where policy and politics influence our restoration efforts. Politics influences the many policy makers who control what we can and can’t do when it comes to restoration or conversation. Unfortunately, most of the time it comes down to which parties can pitch their plan for “the greater good,” and this often leaves little room for conservation or restoration as there is not money to be made with such projects. Conservation efforts in urban environments compared differently from protection efforts on fresh land. Complex life as we know it generally follows the laws of nature, with us humans being an exception. It is in our best interest to start placing a greater focus on the immediate future and the future of our planet.

Now there are many organizations all focused with the same general goal; to build stronger relationships between scientists, policy makers and practitioners, but we are only interested in such organizations regarding conservation or restoration in this case. To paint a better picture and emphasize the effects policies and politics have on the scientific community let me briefly go over the process of development planning. To being with we can establish that the development goal or project will have to be on a conservation or restoration biological level. However, this is still quite ambiguous. While the scientists may want to place a park as a refuge for birds, the investors may believe canopy coverage is not needed and would prefer the planting of other exotic or rare/endangered plant species. As they are both stakeholders within this project the final plan must meet the intentions of many while keeping the others happy and benefit the environment overall. With different intention different metrics are needed to evaluate progress, and progress is defined differently for each person. The planning may prove to be the most difficult part of any restoration or conservation effort as the politics of the parties involved and how they interact need to be decided beforehand, and the final plan must include courses of action to take should unexpected outcomes occur. Hopefully thinking about the thought needed to develop such a project helps you imagine why policy and politics have such a tremendous effect on the scientific community.

 

Pitt R, Wyborn C, Page G, Hutton J, Sawmy MV, Ryan M, Gallagher L. 2018. Wrestling with the complexity of evaluation for organizations at the boundary of science , policy , and practice. 32(5):998–1006. doi:10.1111/cobi.13118.

Restoration Ecology – It is never too late to start

So, what is restoration ecology? When breaking the two words down, restoration means to return something to its former condition after degradation or destruction and ecology is a science that looks at the relationship of organisms and their surroundings. Essentially, ecological restoration tries to fix an ecosystem or help a species that has been bothered. It is about finding a good balance between nature and culture. Revegetation is a good example of ecological restoration. Revegetation is fixing and rebuilding the soil of land that has been disturbed. With revegetation, this affects how plants will grow and their ecosystem.  Good soil is very important for healthy plants.

            A good solution to restoration ecology is ecological landscaping. Ecological landscaping isn’t about planting what is pretty or on trend, but instead thinking about what an ecosystem needs and while caring for other plants, animals, land, and water. It is basically just planting smart. There are many benefits to ecological landscaping such as improving air, water and soil quality, improving human, plant, and animal species health, creates diversity within the ecosystem, etc. I never thought about such things when looking at my garden in my front lawn, but after doing some research I think it is very important to become conscious to the fact that small changes can have big impacts.

An array of different planted and potted plants that add diversity to the environment. Photo credit: Candice Ho

References:

Botanic Gardens Conservation International. (Date unknown). What is Ecological Restoration. Retrieved on February 10, 2019 from http://www.erabg.org/what-is-ecological-restoration/

Unmanaged Habitats – Humans at Fault Again?

By the title, you might be wondering, what did we do now? Yes, we are at fault again, but there is an easy solution to this problem. The problem being that habitats that are unmanaged have an agricultural impact. So, solving this problem would also benefit us, so why not just fix it? Unmanaged habitats mean less opportunity for new species growth and often times the species left unmanaged are weeds, which are invasive species.

            So, how does this affect plant life? For example, when looking at hedgerows, they provide habitats for different species, used for livestock retention, etc. and are often not maintained. When the hedges remain not looked after because farmers care more about their arable land, this causes a problem to other plant species around because when herbicides were used to control weeds at the bottom of hedges, there is such thing as accidental spray drift. Spray drift is when surrounding plants are affected by the herbicides that did not come in direct contact with the hedges. This will affect the arable land that is very close to the hedges. So, would it be better if we just let the hedges grow? Yes, the hedges are beneficial to many species and after doing further research it seems that it would be more beneficial if we left the hedges unmanaged.

Managed hedge – maintained and not growing wildly. Photo credit: Wikimedia
Unmanaged hedge – not maintained and growing wildly. Photo credit: Wikimedia

References:

Author unknown. (Date unknown). Change in Habitats. Retrieved on February 10, 2019 from p://www.ecifm.rdg.ac.uk/habitat.htm