Microhabitats may save the frogs, but who will save the Californians?

Photo Credit: Tim J Keegan via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Tim J Keegan via Compfight cc

Having grown up on the East Coast, droughts are a little foreign to me. Every spring, the city I lived in experienced about 3 weeks on non-stop rain, followed by a summer besieged by extremely violent lighting storms that tore down trees and destroyed church steeples.  If anything, we always seemed to have too much water.  Basements were always flooded; rivers overflowed; windows, roofs and doors constantly leaked dampness through the year.  There were certainly many things to worry about, but a lack of water was really never one of them.

That’s why living in California during the recent drought has been such a weird experience.  The state has already declared that 17 rural areas may run out of water in the next few months.  The State Water Project, which distributes municipal water, announced that it is not going to be able supplement local agencies supplies this year.  Instead of spending their time considering what to plant this year, farmers are wondering whether they should bother planting at all.

With a drought declared, my friends and neighbors have started changing their behaviors as well.  Drains are blocked to save shower water that can be used to flush the toilets and water plants; the faucet is monitored with extreme vigilance, catching every last errant drop; and when a few drops of rain do fall outside, people rush out with pots and pans trying to catch as much as possible.  Light-hearted jokes that were initially made about peeing in the garden to water the plants end with people dropping their smile, pausing and saying, “seriously, we’re considering it.”

It’s like we’re at sea, having lost all our fresh water overboard and threatened with the reality that soon we may have to drink our own urine to survive. Droughts, something I never gave any thought to for much of my life, are now something I have to think about constantly.  Yes, this is extreme, but extreme, it seems, is the new normal, and the question is, how will we manage in this new more extreme environment?

Maybe we can take a tip from other animals and how they survive when their environment becomes a little more extreme.  It turns out that some animals are able to find refuge in their own habitats when things become just a little too wacky.

What do I mean? Well, close your eyes for a minute and think about a forest, a rainforest, let’s say, that’s steamy hot on the best of days.  Animals there are probably pretty used to the heat, but even they have an upper limit of what they can handle, and on occasion those upper limits will be hit (particularly under a warming climate).  This is particularly tricky for animals like frogs and lizards, which are ectothermic, meaning their body temperature varies with the environment.

So if things get a little too toasty, where is a little animal to go?  They’re sort of trapped.  Trapped like we are here in California with a major drought on our hands.  But actually it turns out that forest animals may be a little more lucky than we are.  They have something called microhabitats.

What’s that? Well, let me break it down for you: micro is small and habitat is a fancy design firm that sells side tables for $350.  Oh, it’s also a place you live too…if you’re some sort of animal.  Which we are.

So microhabitats are like habitats within habitats that give animals an extra hide-out.  For you this might be the girls bathroom during a really long and boring blind date.  In the forest, this could be the soil, a tree-hole, vegetation or even epiphytes (which are plants that grow on other plants).  These areas may retain more moisture, or may be cooler on a really hot day.  They’re mini-habitats within larger habitats, and many animals enjoy them.

These little habitats help protect ectotherms like frogs and lizards from extreme condition, for a limited amount of time.  When it comes to warm temperatures, these wee buggers can hide in a cooler micro-environment and hang out  until things cool off.  Similar little sanctuaries could be incredibly important to animals in the face of climate change, where extreme temperatures might make their traditional ranges more challenging.

So, phew. Climate change for frogs and lizards is solved!

But of course not really; don’t go running through the streets declaring that animals are being saved from climate change simply because of microhabitats.  This doesn’t make up for changes in rainfall, or changes to animal behavior, or plant-animal interactions, or even how animals of differing body size will respond to extreme temperatures.  But microhabitats are an interesting ray of hope anyway, and certainly worth additional investigation.

Now if only we could get similar sorts of microhabitats going here in California to save us from our extreme climate events we are experiencing.  What would they look like?  Instead of epiphytes or tree-holes, maybe we could suck our water beds dry? Recycle the tears of the environmentalists? Animals may have a trick or two up their sleeve, but humans have had a little less time to figure this extreme climate business out.

Here’s hoping we get a little cleverer in the future.  I don’t know about you, but I’m parched.

Further Reading
Microhabitats reduce animal’s exposure to climate extremes 

Everybody poops, some animals also eat it

Photo Credit: Amy Loves Yah via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Amy Loves Yah via Compfight cc

Living in East Bay is always an interesting experience.  Where else can you engage in paratheater, uncomfortable zones of fun and midwifery for humanity all in one weekend?

Living in a former pagan temple, I get even more exposure to the whimsy of the local community than most.  People not realizing that my house is now just a regular home, send spell books hand-bound in goat skin and leave tomes to human spiritual evolution at my door step.  Men in orange robes run across traffic to hand me texts exclaiming “you look so spiritual!”  And more than once I’ve had to assess whether a simple dinner party invitation was a stealth attempt at an encounter group.

In all honesty, as much as I gripe about it,  I really love it.  I love the cults, I love the whimsy, I love the uncomfortable zones of fun…or I like the idea of it, I’ve actually never been. I love the Bay!  Except for one thing.  The poop.  The entire Bay area has a serious problem with poop.

There is poop everywhere! Escalators in downtown San Francisco get shut down from too much excrement, poop piles line the sidewalks above every major subway stop, mailboxes are removed because some dude just couldn’t stop leaving his non-mail deposits there.  As you wander the streets contemplating deep thoughts, you have to keep one eye on the sidewalk to avoid the deep [expletive].  Of course the recent drought hasn’t really helped, because rather than washing away all the feces, a lack of water leads to the poop desiccating like mummified statutes memorizing our healthy and vibrant colons.

And it’s not like anyone wants to deal with the poop.  Who wants to be head poop-cleaner for the city?  That’s a job that I just don’t think you could fill.  In nature though there are plenty of animals whose jobs it is to eliminate the poop – because let’s be serious, without them the woods would be one giant toilet.  In addition to microbes, there are flies and butterflies that consume poop in the wild (sorry butterflies can be gross too ).  But most infamous of the poop-eaters are the dung beetles, who not only eat it, but some varieties use it to attract a mate – hey baby, I got you this giant turd, let’s do it!  If only dating people was that easy.

Now, there are a couple different flavors of dung beetles: the rollers, who roll the poop into balls; the tunnelers, who bury the poop where they found it; and the dwellers, who just chill in the poop where ever it falls.  This is sort of like the difference between you and your college roommates: there was the fastidiously clean roommate who hid her filth in her own room, there was the one who tried to shove things behind the couch where no one would notice, and then there was you who just let it all hang out, cause like, whatever it’s college, right?

You know I mock these poop-lovers (and you, slob), but really they are incredibly important to ecosystems.  They consume and bury poop, keeping it away from flies, reducing the risk of poop-related diseases, and enriching the soil as they go.  Also, they make an amazing necklace charm…so I’ve heard, from the Egyptians.  Now they were fashion forward!

Given how important these animals are to de-pooping the landscape, you may be interested to hear that much like many other organisms, these little poop-dudes are changing their habitat in response to a warming climate.  Yes, like other plants and animals, many dung beetle species are expanding their habitat and moving up mountainsides.  This is a pretty common thing that we’ve seen with other species, where a warming climate makes higher elevation locations a little more hospitable to organisms, allowing them to expand their habitat.

What does an expanded habitat mean?  Well, it could be a good thing if you were worried about poop in these higher elevation regions.  Or it might be bad thing if you are concerned about preserving habitats as they are, and are concerned about the impacts of moving ecosystems or species.  Or it could be a gross thing, if you find poop and the animals that make love inside them disgusting.  Or it could be a really satisfying thing, if like, you are into that sort of thing.  No judgment.

I for one am in favor of dung beetles expanding their habitat.  I just wish they would consider moving to the Bay.  Yeah, the housing is expensive, and the enlightenment runs rich, but I can’t think of a better place to find some sweet, sweet feces, laying desiccated in the street just waiting for a special coprophage to enjoy the fruits of the land.  I can see the ads now, “California, the land of plenty…especially for the dung beetle.”

Further Reading:

Climate change and elevational range shifts: evidence from dung beetles in two European mountain ranges


The Changing Climate of the East Bay

Photo Credit: Christopher Chan via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Christopher Chan via Compfight cc

Living in Berkeley is a surreal experience.  Once the center of a political and social revolution, it’s now like wandering a graveyard that’s been infiltrated by high-tech picnickers. As you wander the streets you meet the ghosts of revolutions past, sometimes reformed into soccer grandmas with pressed silver hair and hand-hammered African jewelry, sometimes in the form of the homeless selling newspapers packing their lives into a few small bags, and sometimes as continued revolutionaries determined to ensure that the voice of their generation echoes through the streets everyday.  And what are these new battles that must be fought?  Is it police brutality in Oakland? Is it pervasive government spying?  What about the closing of youth homeless shelters in the summer?

Well those are all well and good, but the revolutionaries of my town have bigger things in mind: sleep-ins against moving the post office (it *is* in a really nice building), legislative attempts to outlaw homelessness (sorry, I mean sitting on the streets), and most recently, a campaign to save the flammable and invasive Eucalyptus trees (“because they didn’t ask to be brought here” – actual quote).

So what’s my beef with eucalyptus?  Actually nothing.  With their colorful streaked bark and sweet medicinal smell, they provide a bucolic stroll through the Berkeley hills.  They are alluring, hypnotizing, towering trees…but they also spread like wildfire…and spread wildfires… so they’re not great for a high fire area like California.  But logic isn’t something that we’re used to using in my part of the Bay, and it comes out clearly when you try to figure out why a flammable tree native to Australia would have been planted in a high fire area in the first place.

What intrigues me isn’t the incredibly dishy local politics associated with the cutting of these trees; it’s how these fair trees will fare under climate change.  In addition to being good fodder for local politics, eucalyptus are also a popular plantation species because they make rockin’ paper.  So people everywhere are actually pretty interested in how these guys will respond to a warmer, more carbon-rich environment.

The thing is that plants often actually get used to new environments, changing their internal physiology when things get gradually warmer, or wetter, or whatever, to keep up their performance (i.e. keep photosynthesis chugging and all).  This is referred to acclimatization, which is similar to the phenomenon of why you stopped asking your husband to pick up his socks after 35 years of marriage, and how I’ve gotten used to waiting 45 minutes for an avocado-sprout sandwich since moving to the Bay– we’ve both acclimatized to our new environments…I guess.

So if plants are these big acclimatizers, will eucalyptus follow suit, or go rogue?  And as usual, it sort of depends.  ‘On what?’  You ask.  ‘The levels of carbon dioxide?  The warming treatment?’

Well, sure, sure, yes those things are important, but actually so is the time of year.  To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season…four of them really, and they interact with the local environment to impact plants.

You see, CO2 enhances photosynthesis in these plants year-round, but just a bit more in the summer.  Meanwhile, a warmer treatment increased photosynthesis in the winter, but not in the summer—maybe they’re not the greatest acclimatizers when things get too hot?

So now we have an additional treatment to consider when thinking about how climate change will impact plant systems: temperature, CO2… and seasons?  Great, that’ll make research that much easier.  There is an upside, I suppose:  a limitation to photosynthesis in hot, hot summers might actually keep the eucalyptus from taking off outside of its native range—more than it already has, I mean.  This may add an interesting twist to the local politics in these here parts.  Why worry about human intervention, when we could just wait for climate to restrict these plants for us?

One final note for all y’all out there who are still living in 1995 and think that climate change is great for plants because it’ll make them bigger and badder and all that, these plants that I’m talking about here are in plantations, where they are watered and fertilized and petted and loved and possibly danced around by moonlight.  Unless you want to do that for every plant on earth (and please, don’t let me stop you), plants will typically run into some sort of other limitation outside of temperature or carbon dioxide…like nitrogen…or water…or someone with an axe.  So y’know, keep the science in mind when you are blah blah blahing about this later tonight with your pals.

In the meantime, maybe climate change effects on the local forests will heat up the local politics in my part of the world.  Or maybe not.  We probably have bigger fish to fry; in fact I think I see someone trying to feed a homeless person.  Do you have the number for the local cops?

 Further Reading:
Photosynthesis of temperate Eucalyptus globulus trees outside their native range has limited adjustment to elevated CO2 and climate warming.



Climate Change for the Very Picky Eater

Photo Credit: Pamela Graham via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Pamela Graham via Compfight cc

San Francisco is known for its culinary delights; there’s just about every type of restaurant in town for every kind of diet.  Paleos, GAPSers, macrobiotics, raw juicers and frugivores can delight in the many delectable treats available around every corner.  We have everything from Jakartan street food (the menu of which actually taunts that “you will not like this!”) to vegan chickin’ and waffles.  People have business cards with titles such as “Broth Maker” and “Kombucha Sommalier”.   It’s the land of the $4 toast and the $65 juice, but also the $2 taco – personally I recommend the taco, for price and pleasure.

So in a place where your daily food options are everything from pork ban mi to toasted quinoa, where do you go for something really different?  Why not try the restaurant where you can’t see the food? That’s where I took my husband for his recent birthday—a little place that serves you dinner in the dark. I mean the pitch dark, as in zero light at all.

Now you’re probably thinking that eating in pure blackness has got to be an incredibly wild and enriching experience.  All of your other senses must be enhanced by the loss of your eyesight.  You become more conscious of the taste.  The smells become overwhelming.  The texture of the food becomes ineffable.  The ordinary becomes extraordinary!  You delight in every last nibble.

So, what’s it like to eat pork chops and polenta in the pitch dark?  It’s like….eating pork chops and polenta in the pitch dark.  Um, yeah.

If the food is dry, well, the lack of light doesn’t help.  And if the drinks are too sweet?  Changing the lighting doesn’t really change that.  In fact, the loss of vision becomes a bit of an impediment to enjoyment because every small imperfection in the food becomes extremely noticeable. Turns out, sensory deprivation isn’t the best way to enjoy mediocre food.

Now you may think that I am being fussy, which could be possible, though I have to say I’ve eaten my share of grasshoppers and black eggs without a single complaint (except about the antennae getting stuck in my teeth, because yuck).  But for the record, I’d like to say that if I am a fussy eater, I am certainly not the only one.  In fact people in general are not the only fussy eaters out there.  Turns out bugs, yes, insects can be pretty fussy too, particularly under a warming climate.

What do I mean?  Well, I’ve talked a lot before about the effects of climate change on plants, particularly plants that create drugs, because that is all people really seem to care about these days (freaks).  And I’ve even talked about how climate change is going to influence insects and even the things that eat insects!  Like, wow, lots of things being affected here.  But I haven’t really talked about the effect of climate change on plant quality for the insects that rely on them for food.  Yeah, food quality even matters to insects.  Picky little bastards.

So, how does temperature influence plant quality?  Well, temperature levels during plant growth can affect everything from photosynthesis to nutrient availability, all of which impact a plant’s nutritional quality.  So if you have a plant that is grown at a higher temperature, depending on the plant, it may actually be less nutrient-rich.  And what happens when insects eat plants that are of poor nutritional quality?  Well, they eat a lot more of it.  Kind of like how when people eat McDonalds they don’t really feel satiated, and eat more and more and more until the Mayor of New York has to outlaw it or something…

When researchers fed little butterfly pupae (because cute! Or because science, I don’t know) plants that had been grown at a higher temperature, even with increased chomping on the leaves, the pupae’s growth was stunted. This suggests that they were trying to eat more to compensate for the lack of nutrients in the leaves, and failed to get big and fat because these leaves were just of poor quality.

So this could be good news for people who worry about pests, because the plants of the future might not be as nutrient rich, which could stunt pest growth – hurray!  But at the same time, those pests could tell that the food they were eating was no good, so they just ate more – boo!  Then again this is just one factor: temperature.  We all know that climate change includes lots of things that could impact plants including changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide, as well as rain and snow patterns.  These are all things that might interact with temperature to influence both plants and the little pests that love them.

Will these changes create a new generation of picky pests?  If so, they can’t be any worse than the picky people of San Francisco, myself included.  If they want to move to the Bay area to join us snobby consumers, I think they’d fit in just fine.

Further Reading:

Increased temperature reduces herbivore host-plant quality

It’s the Little Things with Climate Change

Photo Credit: Broo_am (Andy B) via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Broo_am (Andy B) via Compfight cc

A dark shadow has fallen over the city of Berkeley.  The air has grown cold. The sun is blocked by clouds.  The trees have turned gray and are dropping dull, broken leaves.  It is fall.  Unlike the dazzling fall that hits many other parts of the country, with bold reds and fiery yellows, fall in Berkeley is like having a thick icy blanket dropped over an otherwise vivid city.

People start their hibernation. They begin to walk like zombies, sleepily heading to work each morning, wandering aimlessly through the day and wandering home at night.  They’re hardly even smoking pot anymore.  What is the point when the weather can have the same dulling effect?

Meanwhile, their leaky, poorly insulated homes turn to frozen chambers while they sleep. Though the temperature rarely hits the freezing mark, the lack of insulation makes things feel even colder as the chilled night air leaks in through every crevice. Any attempt at heat is immediately lost.  Mice don’t even bother nesting in the walls. An underground bunker would be more insulated.

This is not California, you think.  This is hell.  A couple degrees makes a huge difference.  A few degrees can be the difference between life and death.

From reading my blog, you’ve learned that some invasive species just love temperature changes.  A few degrees allows them to hop in and make a mess of a new area.   Meanwhile some other animals are going to be displaced as the seas rise from a warming ocean.

But something I haven’t talked about yet, in relation to temperature, which is possibly the most straightforward and obvious part, is range expansion up mountainsides in response to climate change.  And this isn’t something that is going to happen in some distant future; this is something that has already happened. It’s been going on for 150 years.

Bad news people, the climate has changed.

Take the Alps. Maybe you picture milk-loving maids making cheeseskiing and the hills being alive with some sort of musical sound…or something.  But you’ve also got these fabulous icy mountaintops that are just not amenable to plant life. Unless they get warmer, in which case they are amenable.  And that’s just what happened.

On one mountaintop in Southeastern Switzerland, researchers found that an increase of just 1.6 degrees celsius since the mid-1800s has allowed the number and variety of plants (aka species richness) to expand. The plants were previously “temperature limited,” but since the temperature has increased, they can expand into new territories.  Seems obvious right?

But haven’t other things happened since the 1800’s? Things like MTV, and the Charleston, and the fall of communism and, well, mountaineering has gotten totally popular and also it turns out that lynx are making a comeback, and tantric sex is having a revival…  So you know, a lot of things have changed since 1850. How could we say it was just temperature causing this change?

Really, mountaineering and lynx are totally relevant questions to be asking. Large mammals, like lynx and mountain men, travel around the mountainside and accidentally spread seeds along with them.  So couldn’t the increase in plant numbers and variety just be because big hunky mammals are spreading seeds everywhere as they wander the hillside?

Well, according to the researchers, most of the shift in plants on this particular mountain don’t appear to coincide with the periods when lynx or mountain-climbers first appeared.  Rather, the changes in plant population coincide with changes in temperature. Your alternative hypotheses were good, they’re just not what appears to have been going on here.

So, a few degrees temperature does make a difference for plants and animals globally.  Here in Berkeley, I’m coming to terms with what a few degrees in any one direction could mean.  I’m afraid next week we might get as low as 60 degrees. Brrr!  I just don’t think I was built for this climate.

Further Reading:

The oldest monitoring site of the Alps revisited: accelerated increase in plant species richness on Piz Linard summit since 1835.