Archive for the 'Environment' category

Know Your Biomes VII: Temperate Forest

May 24 2007 Published by under Basic Concepts, Conservation, Ecology, Environment, Evolution

Walking through a streamside copse of eastern hemlock in the ancient Appalachians is revealing for several reasons. First, the sheer size and age of these virgin stands can be humbling - at 45+ meters high, one tree may have been alive for more than 600 years. Second, a closer look at the forest's composition can tell ecologists two things: By assessing the pollen contained within pond sediment, you learn that these hemlocks started repopulating the eastern US about 12,000 years ago, following in the "footsteps" of the maple genus (Acer spp.) after the retreat of the massive glaciers covering most of the United States. We also learn that eastern hemlocks tend to hug water sources, giving way to deciduous trees as the incline of the valley steepens. Mixed forests like these are principle in most of the Appalachian mountains.

But the Appalachian mixed forest is only one small ecoregion in a much larger biome, the temperate forests. Named for relatively mild temperatures and moderate annual precipitation, they stretch across the globe between 30 and 40 50 degrees latitude, from the Gondwanaland throwback Valdivian forests of Argentina and Chile (they resemble forests in New Zealand and Australia), to the home of the pandas.

Temperate forests vary greatly in the amount of rain they receive, anywhere from 650 mm 3,000 mm. On the high end of the scale are regions like the Pacific northwest, where redwoods and sequoias live in what is sometimes classified as a temperate rainforest due to the high levels of precipitation, mid range for a tropical rainforest. They're seasonal. Deciduous (and one or two conifers like the larch) drop their leaves during the winter to conserve energy.

The soils of temperate forests are typically fertile, but their specific properties depend on the composition of the forest. In deciduous dominated forests (oak-hickory, beech-maple, etc.), nutrients cycle quickly, creating a substrate rich in organics. Soils in coniferous dominated forests are much more acidic and nutrient cycling tends to be more conservative.

Fire is important to nutrient cycling and population regulation. Many conifers have specially adapted thick bark to ward off the effects of fire and the cones of some species, the "fire-climax" pines like the pond pine or the Monterey pine, often depend on the touch of flame to open.

Like the tropical rainforest, temperates are vertically stratified, with organisms living and growing in the canopy, a shorter layer of mature trees below, the shrub layer and, of course, the understory, where nematodes, fungi and bacteria break down the thick mat of leaf litter into organically rich soil. Light is relatively abundant in the forest understory, allowing ferns and herbaceous plants to thrive. Mosses and lichens cover tree trunks and rock in the more moist portions of the forest.

Vertebrate life is equally diverse. In China, the red panda and the giant panda live in the same general area and subsist on the same food - bamboo - without being in direct competition. They fill very specific niches, however, predominantly eating different parts of the plant and browse slightly different regions. White-tailed deer, grouse, bobcats and black bear dominate the Appalachian forest. In eastern Russia the and leopard, both highly endangered, found refuge in Manchuria, which the last ice age left untouched by glaciers.

Humans have affected temperate forests more than any other biome due to the habitability, fertility and resource richness of these areas. Forest covered most of the eastern US and western Europe until civilizations moved in to urbanize.

Next time: Taiga

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Know Your Biomes V: Deserts

Mar 24 2007 Published by under Basic Concepts, Conservation, Ecology, Environment, Evolution

From a human perspective, deserts, like tundras, seem barren and desolate, inhabited by organismal oddities, pressed into their respective niches by patch of bad luck, or a salt flat, as it were. But thinking beyond our prejudice, seeing through the eyes of a camel or transpiring through the stomata of a saguaro cactus, some conception of deserts as biologically viable and diverse regions of the planet can be gained. Life may not be particularly abundant in most of these areas, but it is varied, unique and beautiful.

For the most part, deserts occur in a consistent band at 30 degrees north and south, with some exceptions on the coasts of North and South America. Dry, subtropical air robs these areas of moisture as it descends, circulating it to more temperate zones. Not all deserts are as parched as the Sahara in Africa or the Atacama-Sechura in Chile and Peru, which receive less than an inch of rain per year - essentially nil. The Sonoran Desert, for example, receives as much rain as the lower threshold of a temperate grassland, about 300 mm per year. The Sonoran remains a desert because of this cardinal rule of being: evaporation exceeds precipitation.

Temperatures are typically hot during the day and freezing at night because of the lack of cloud cover, though in areas of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, the average temperature is only about 3.6 degrees C annually, with temperatures dropping well below zero C.

Soil has a low concentration of organic matter, so much so that it is often classified as lithosols, or strictly inorganic soils. This is especially evident in aged, undisturbed soils, where a special limestone horizon called a caliche is formed (because of its inherent low level of disturbance, ecologists can use this layer to accurately age a desert). Great salt flats are common in desert areas, where pools of accumulated water from heavy rains evaporate, leaving crusts of salt crystals spanning large areas, making it more difficult for organisms to extract water from their environment.

But extract they do, in various specialized ways. Desert perennials like the prickly pear have evolved a thick, waxy cuticle capable of retaining water more effectively year round. The stems have low surface area exposure, its "thin" parts facing into the sun. Roots extend horizontally below the surface, increasing their area of absorption. Their leaves, which would have been a liability in the extreme sun and moisture sapping aridity, have become reduced to non-photosynthesizing, defensive spines. Even their cycle of photosynthesis is different than most plants, closing their carbon dioxide absorbing stomata during the day, when the potential for water loss is greater (CAM).

Annuals are a different story. Given the extreme rarity of significant rainfall, these plants grow rapidly when water is available, producing seeds that can lie dormant for years, until the rains come again. Some of these plants keep a death grip on their seeds until the touch of water hydrates the cellulose of their seed pods, opening the pod releasing the seed.

Some plants, called halophytes, have even adapted to thrive in the salt flats. Atriplex is an extraordinary example. It can maintain higher levels of salt within its cells in order to extract water from the salt flats. Some of these cells burst, coating Atriplex with a defensive layer of salt, making the plant a dangerous meal for any water conserving herbivore.

One species, however, has found a way around this problem: The red vizcacha rat (in the same family as the chinchilla) has evolved a series of teeth that can remove the outer salty layer from Atriplex, making it just edible for the resourceful animal.

Other animals have similarly adapted to the heat and aridity; in fact, some, like the camel, have independently evolved the same measures as plants for keeping cool and hydrated. The camel faces into sun, keeping a slim profile, reducing its surface area exposure. It maintains a store of fat in its hump in order to produce metabolic water. A thick coat of hair, much like cactus spines, covers its body, reducing heat absorption. As the prickly pear keeps its stomata closed during the day, the camel does not sweat, reducing its own loss of water.

Most desert animals, however, are nowhere near the size of the camel, preferring to hide in burrows during the day, emerging to hunt and/or forage at dusk.

I could go on indefinitely about this biome. The extremity of the climate has produced fascinating characteristics in desert wildlife, and they are so different from region to region that they deserve descriptions of their own (especially areas like the Madagascar succulent woodlands, home of the bizarre Didiereans, pictured at the beginning of this post). Perhaps I will return to these areas of interest at a later date.

Next we'll look at the bread baskets of the world - the temperate grasslands.

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Why Spiders Aren't Insects III: The Evolutionary Advantages of Mass Extinction

So far we have established that spiders are distinct from insects for two reasons: physiology (mouth parts, body plan, respiratory structures) and more importantly, evolutionary history (or phylogeny, as scientists call it).

But where did spider's come from? How did they crawl out of the water as euryterids and speciate (become a distinct organism that cannot interbreed)?

The answer, like many in invertebrate paleontology, is cloudy. Organisms without hard, thick shells rarely become fossilized. In fact, for any organism's parts to become fossilized, even vertebrates, is a profound rarity, as Bill Bryson illustrates in A Short History of Nearly Everything:

Only about one bone in a billion, it is thought, ever becomes fossilized. If that is so, it means that the complete fossil legacy of all the Americans alive today - that's 270 million people with 206 bones each - will only be about fifty bones, one quarter of a complete skeleton.

Needless to say, invertebrate paleontologists are having a heck of a time piecing things together from such a paltry fossil record. But that doesn't mean there's no evidence.

According to morphological and geological evidence, and therefore directly observable comparison, spiders and their brethren descended from the eurypterids, many of which were sea-going creatures. The eurypterids arose in the Ordovician, a period that began with the decimation of perhaps 60% of all marine life, and consequently ended with another more devastating cataclysm, which which some paleontologists rank as the second most destructive extinction event in the history of the world (by extinction of family). This has become known, quite appropriately, as the end-Ordovician event.

Mass extinctions make room for the evolution of unique characteristics as dictated by an organism's environment, and the environment changed drastically for the eurypterids at the end of the Ordovician. Glaciers began to creep down from the upper latitude, as the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide was depleted from the atmosphere, reducing the Earth's ability to trap the sun's heat energy. As the glaciers encroached, sea levels dropped and global temperatures cooled. This rapid progression decimated habitats, and destroyed a species' equilibrium with its environment.

But the end-Ordovician event was comprised of two parts: glaciation and then a period melting, an interglacial. Temperatures warmed once more, glaciers melted, flooding the land, and raising sea levels once more. The world had completely lost almost 50 percent of the families of life, but the ancestors of the spiders had survived. The Silurian period had begun, and new ecological niches were available for exploitation, a habitat opportunity that eventually would produce the spider.

That's about how it stands from a morphological perspective. But more recently scientists have been delving into molecular evidence and crafting very different explanations of not only the rise of the spider, but the vast diversification of arthropods in general.

Next time we'll address the new cladograms produce by this molecular evidence, and what ramifications it might have in interpreting the diaspora of the most abundant creatures on the planet.

*Interestingly enough, we are in the middle of an interglacial right now, the Holocene. Much like the success of the spider, our current interglacial, which began about 16,000 years ago, may have contributed to the ultimate "success" of Homo sapiens.


Pechenik, J. A. (2000). Biology of the Invertebrates. : McGraw Hill Companies.

Gradstein, Felix, James Ogg, and Alan Smith, eds., 2004. A Geologic Time Scale 2004 (Cambridge University Press)

Baez, J. (2005). Temperature. Retrieved July 18, 2006, from

Webby, Barry D. and Mary L. Droser, eds., 2004. The Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event

University of Bristol. (2004). Fossil chelicerates and evolution. Retrieved July 18, 2006, from

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