Know Your Biomes IX: Chaparral

Fynbos in the Western Cape, South Africa*

As much as any biome or global ecoregion is a challenge to group, differentiate or otherwise generalize, the chaparral or Mediterranean woodlands (scrubland/heathland/grassland) biome may be the best example such classification difficulties. There’s perhaps more general agreement regarding the features of this biome, even if the name tends to change from author to author. Many texts will not even include this biome in their list of major regions, instead making a small reference to it in the section regarding deserts. However, these areas, considering their combined territory, contain about 20 percent of the world’s species of plants, many of them endemic gems found nowhere else. On the flipside, due to the often environmentally heterogeneous nature of this biome, organisms that are prominent, integral members of other biome classifications are found in the chaparral as well. For the sake of consistency in this post, I’ll continue to refer to this biome as chaparral, as incomplete a descriptive designation as that may be.

Specifically, chaparral biomes exist in five major regions: South Africa, South/Southwest Australia, Southwestern California/Mexico, Central Chile and in patches wrapped around the Mediterranean Sea, including Southern Europe and Northern Africa. These regions are unified by their hot, dry summers and mild winters, referred to as an archetypal Mediterranean climate at 40 degrees north and south approximately.

The vast majority of rainfall usually comes with the cold fronts of winter. Annually, chaparral can experience anywhere from 250 mm of rain all the way up to 3000 mm in isolated subregions like the west portion of Fynbos in South Africa.

Plants in chaparral areas tend to be sclerophyllous (Greek: “hard-leaved”), meaning the leaves are evergreen, tough and waxy. This adaptation allows plants to conserve water in an area where rainfall is discontinuous, but probably evolved to compensate for the low levels of phosphorous in ancient weathered soils, particularly in Australia where there have been relatively few volcanic events to reestablish nutrients over millions of years. Obviously, these plants also happen to do very well during the xeric summers of the chaparral where drought is always a threat.

Because of the aridity and heat, the chaparral plant communities are adapted to and often strategically dependent on fire. Evolutionary succession scenarios constructed by scientists typically point to fire as one of the major factors that created much of chaparral areas in Australia and South Africa from Gondwanaland rainforest. (Fire ecology really deserves at least a post of its own, which I’d like to discuss given the time in the future.)

Some of the regions in the chaparral are exceptional. In South Africa, the area known as the Fynbos constitutes its own floristic region (phytochorion) among phytogeographers, the Cape Floristic Region. While it is the smallest of these floral kingdoms, it contains some 8500 species of vascular plants, 70 percent of which are endemic. The March rose (Oromthamnus zeyheri) is one of the standout specimens of the group as well as the national flower of South Africa, the King protea (Protea cynaroides). P. cynaroides is a “resprouter” in its fire-prone habitat, growing from embedded buds in a subterranean, burl-like structure. Another endemic species, the Cape sugarbird, is shown feeding on a King protea below**.

There is one unique threat to the chaparral: anthropogenic fire. In the past, if nature had not provided a fire to burn back the accumulated brush in these areas, often the native peoples would do so, and generally speaking, the fires seemed to be controlled and effective. But increased frequency of fires due to negligence or downed power lines can potentially cause catastrophic, unrecoverable fire. Only so much tolerance to such a destructive force can be built by evolutionary processes.

*Image by Chris Eason
**Image by Derek Keats

No responses yet

Nature and the illusion of peace

Jun 09 2011 Published by under Environment

In the clearing just below my grandfather's hunting cabin, between thick rows of red and blue spruce, you have to be careful with the lawn mower. Three perfect white sitting rocks are quickly overgrown with daisies and other weeds in the spring, so it's important to fish the stones from the tangle to avoid twisting a blade. I spent an evening there, about an hour, sitting, waiting for the sun to fully set, for the sky to blacken. Eventually I lost patience and went inside. The trees remained shadows against dark blue for much of the night.

Down there though, sitting on those rocks, it's quiet. The silence is deep, broken only by the furtive movements of rodents and birds in the woods and the rise and fall of the choral of tiny frogs by the pond. Occasionally the song halts while a larger animal passes - perhaps deer or raccoon - and then resumes. I get edgy thinking it might be a bear.

These are the moments we crave with nature. I sought out the exact place for my cathartic need for the quiet mountain that evening in the same way millions of people seek out specific places to connect with nature: state parks, hiking trails, cabin rentals, on and on. When my grandfather's place was inaccessible due to distance, I found other ways to connect. If I went too long without having that selfish bit of time, I felt pensive, frustrated. E.O. Wilson cites our evolutionary heritage. I tend to agree, but it runs deep in different ways. In my case, it's partially familial. Being in the woods anywhere reminds me of happy, uncomplicated times I spent with my family.

There's something untrue about it all, however. I sit in the night and listen, hearing little, breathing deep, but under my feet billions of organisms fight for territory and resources in the tiny cracks between soil granules. The soil itself is a conglomerate of varied origin, the decayed remains of animals and plants, fragments of ancient rock from continents long dead. The weeds we hacked down just days before have begun to vigorously regenerate, to vie for a better access to sunlight. Down the road, a snake invades the den of a family of chipmunks overnight, consumes the young. The guardians of the den are dead, flattened by passing cars on the asphalt. The babies would have died of starvation anyway.

You can almost see it, hear it when you want to, the cells of every living things around, the innumerable chemical processes firing off and all of this in context temporarily strips away that peace, leaves bare a reality, if not the reality of nature. The limitations of our own senses save us from prolonged exposure, but it invades nonetheless, if you let it.

There is something disrespectfully incomplete about popular conceptions of nature, especially when the escape into these places we love is for pure beauty, pure peace. There's something I dread about reentering that world, seeing the things none of us want to see, the brutality of it: death, chemical compulsions, the needs of predators. It's a reminder of how things really are and squashes that silly daydream of somehow returning to nature and finding our "proper" place among it once more. As a species, we ran away and didn't look back until about 100 years ago or so.

It's easy to wax poetic about the parsimony of nature, the circle of life, the harmless, birds-eye view of the majesty (and other such cliches), but it's difficult to actually witness the sad little realities that form the foundations of the big, happy system. The peace that I derive from nature is always denuded, raw, contextualized; I return to the city relieved but mindful. It's never a light escape. It never should be.

No responses yet

Environmental framing again, a clarification

Aug 20 2010 Published by under [Biology&Environment], [Science in Society]

Matt Nisbet has a post up at Big Think referencing a brief interview with Peter Groffman regarding the recent open-access science communication issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Both are worth a read. I was linked in the article (this post, a brief review of some of the content), and while I appreciate it, I do want to clarify and perhaps expand the gist of my post.

Nisbet’s post stated that I feared the “dumbing down” (his words, not mine, despite the quotation marks) of the science for public consumption. I think that certainly represents one of the concerns of framing critics, especially those in the scientific community. Personally, that’s not high on my list. I’m sure the ESA and associated scientists will be able to represent the science behind the problems and potential solutions plainly and efficiently.

The post I wrote was an attempt at expressing a general aversion for comprehensive marketing schemes and questioning, when it comes to the “humanities” portion of the plan, whether or not honesty – in worldview, philosophy or fiction – was important enough to preserve in its entirety. Some of the papers in the publication sounded like every business case, proposal and requirements doc I’ve ever read or written, which is fine, by the way; it’s typical. I’m sneering because documents like those are mostly industry fluff and setup language for the real meat, which can be boiled out rather easily and comprises a very small portion of the actual verbiage. We toss charts and graphs into technical documents to fill them out and give a visual for the sake of color or flow (or because it’s a standard) instead of representing an accurate depiction of process.

I’m being stubborn. Ultimately I think it’s sad and reflects poorly on us that people in positions of influence believe these kinds of campaigns are the key to reaching "the public," that only through demographical media saturation can we ever hope to teach science and instill environmental stewardship. Advertisers have to petition tribally to encourage us to buy; McDonald’s runs unique, culturally stereotypical commercials for WLITE 101.3, WURBAN 105.7 and WROCK 99.1 and it’s permissible to assume that the listeners to those stations are okay with being pigeonholed. I’m usually told something along the lines of “What do you expect?” or “You think this is new?” or “It’s just personal preference. I actually like that commercial,” and probably rightly so. It just doesn’t sit well with me.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Communicating environmental realities: framing and fiction

Aug 03 2010 Published by under [Biology&Environment], [Science in Society]

ResearchBlogging.orgI finally found the time yesterday evening to read through a few of the papers from the latest Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, which is focused on science/environmental communication this time around. The majority of the articles are driven by Nisbet's ideas about framing in general, but I don't really want to dive back into that mire of rhetoric, at least on a broadside.

I'll start out by saying that I do agree to some extent that the idea of stewardship is a good one in that it has been adopted by folks with very different worldviews. I think overall Wilson's The Creation took a good step of putting aside some of the more tedious ideological blockers between materialism and spiritualism in regard to feeling a connection to nature in any affectionate sense compelling enough to engender stewardship. Since it was published (and I'm sure before then) much work has been done to piece together a much more diverse, welcoming environmental movement.

Continue Reading »

2 responses so far

Decades later, how has the ecology of coastal Saudi Arabia recovered from the largest oil spill in history?

May 31 2010 Published by under [Biology&Environment]

As the Deepwater Horizon spill progresses, I've been tracking down the science that has been done as a result of other large spills, particularly the monitoring of ecosystem damage and recovery. It's a mixed bag, apples and oranges in some cases, largely dependent on the communities affected, the extent of the spill, the cleanup effort and the environmental/species composition of the affected area.

I went straight to the biggest first, the Gulf War oil spill, which started in January of 1991 and ended up leaking 11 million barrels of oil (one barrel = 42 gallons) into the Persian Gulf, which eventually washed up on to the shorelines of the area, invading the beaches, salt marshes and mangrove forests. In 2001 and then again in 2008, Dr. Hans-Jörg Barth of the University of Regensburg reported on the ecological effects of the spill, which are apparent to this day.

Continue Reading »

No responses yet