Year 3, Month 8, Day 26: Big Bee Gets The Honey

The Kitsap Sun (WA) is one of a number of papers running a Seattle Times story about a scientist who studies flowers:

SEATTLE (AP) — University of Washington researcher Elinore Theobald is studying the relationship between flowers and their pollinators on Washington’s highest mountain. And what she is finding so far — avalanche lilies at higher elevation set seed at one-third the rate of lilies elsewhere on the mountain — points to troubling questions.

Is it possible that the lilies are struggling because of a mismatch in their timing with their pollinators? And does that, in turn, point to trouble as the climate changes?

Theobald, a doctoral candidate, is working with field assistants Natasha Lozanoff and Margot Tsakonas to understand not just how a single species might be affected by even small changes in temperature, but how biological interactions between species respond to changing climates.

It is, if you will, a burning question: The average annual temperature in the Pacific Northwest has increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1920, and is projected to increase an additional 3.6 to 7.2 degrees or more by the end of the century, according to the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington.

What might that mean for plant and animal communities? One way to find out is to head to the mountain, Theobald figured, where the range in elevation can be a proxy for the shifts in climate that are forecast.

She posits that understanding how plant and pollinator interactions are playing out at those different elevations today might be a clue to what will occur in the future. And if you love avalanche lilies, it might not be good.

A flower is a lovesome thing. Sent August 21:

One of the most important things to be learned from studying ecological relationships is that every living thing on the planet is connected intricately with countless other living things. Humanity’s perch at the high end of the food chain depends on the millions of complex symbiotic relationships that collectively form Earth’s biosphere — like those between flowers and their pollinators. The University of Washington’s Elinore Theobald and her team of researchers have uncovered some very troubling evidence suggesting that these examples of nature’s genius in fostering teamwork may be at considerable risk due to the rapid acceleration of global climate change.

Just as individual achievements depend on the infrastructure created by a well-functioning society, so is our species’ collective progress built on an environmental “infrastructure” millions of years in the making. While the past century of industrial growth has brought our civilization to a level of remarkable accomplishment, it has also disrupted the climate in ways that seem likely to have disastrous consequences.

If our internet goes out for an hour, we feel sorely inconvenienced. But the planetary environment is a larger, older, and far more essential kind of “world-wide web” — one we cannot afford to lose.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 1, Day 8: There Is Grandeur In This View Of Life

The Columbus, IN Republic prints an article from the Hartford Courier on evolutionary processes triggered by climate change:

HARTFORD, Conn. — Numerous species already have enough to contend with as climate changes drive them out of their natural habitats; a new study shows that they also have to compete with each other in outrunning those changes.

The University of Connecticut study, to be published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, suggests that the effects of climate change on wildlife are a good deal more complicated than previously thought.

Mark Urban, an assistant professor of ecology and environmental biology who led the new research, said many studies conducted on climate change and its potential impact on wildlife feature complex meteorological models to predict changes in climate.

What they don’t feature, he said, are equally complex models of how wildlife will react to those climate changes. Real-world factors — the different rates at which animals migrate, how they prey on each other and how they get in each other’s way — need to be included for a more accurate picture.

Killing two bird-brains with one stone, eh? Sent January 4:

Darwin-deniers are overwhelmingly likely to be climate-change deniers, and vice-versa; both groups can expect significant learning experiences during the coming century, as global warming pushes countless animal species out of their accustomed ecological niches and into intense evolutionary competition with one another.

However, both groups share the habit of ignoring evidence and embracing dogma, so it’s anyone’s guess how long their entrenched ideological positions will hold out in the face of rapid extinctions, extreme weather events, unexpected crossbreeds (like the new species of hybrid shark recently found off the coast of Australia), droughts, floods, and all the other epiphenomena of a runaway greenhouse effect.

Yes, biological evolution makes some people uncomfortable; yes, the notion that a century spent pumping carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere might eventually have some negative effects is disturbing. But “uncomfortable” and “disturbing” won’t even begin to describe the future that awaits us should we continue on our carbon-burning, fact-phobic path.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 1, Day 7: (cue scary theme music)

The Christian Science Monitor, among others, reports on a troubling development: corporations have learned how to swim:

In what is being hailed as the world’s first evidence of inter-species breeding among sharks, a team of marine researchers at the University of Queensland have identified 57 hybrid sharks in waters off Australia’s east coast.


“Wild hybrids are usually hard to find, so detecting hybrids and their offspring is extraordinary,” said Ovenden.

Hybridization is common among many animal species, including some fish, but until now it has been unknown among sharks. In most fish species, fertilization takes place outside the body, with the males and females each releasing their gametes into the water where they mix. Blacktip sharks, by contrast, give birth to live young and actively choose their mates, which, as the scientists discovered, can sometimes be of a different species.

Ovenden speculated that the two species began mating in response to environmental change, as the hybrid blacktips are able to travel further south to cooler waters than the Australian blacktips. The team is looking into climate change and human fishing, among other potential triggers.

This is straining a bit for effect, but it was fun while it lasted. Sent January 3:

With the discovery of a new species of hybrid shark in the waters off Australia, we’re getting a glimpse of what the next few centuries have in store for us. In a post climate-change future, Earth’s fauna will respond to extreme weather conditions the only way they can — by adapting under extreme evolutionary pressure. It’s just our luck that the critters involved are vicious, soulless, mindless, predatory killing machines propelled only by the most basic of survival instincts.

Meanwhile, humanity’s attempts to mitigate runaway climate change are stymied by the corporate interests most implicated in causing the greenhouse effect — fossil fuel companies, which could just as easily be described as vicious, soulless, mindless, predatory killing machines propelled only by the most basic of survival instincts. Are twenty-first century mega-corporations the economic analogue to new species of sharks?

Will it ever be safe to go back in the water?

Warren Senders