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 

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