Tag Archives: ecology

Most people think they’re doing more for the environment than everyone else — but that’s not how averages work

People tend to (wrongly) overestimate the greenness of their personal lifestyle.

Image credits Gerd Altmann.

A study from the University of Gothenburg found that people are likely to overestimate how environmentally-friendly their own lifestyle is — and that it’s ‘greener’ than that of an average person. The study included over 4,000 participants from Sweden, the United States, England, and India.

Greenier than thou

“The results point out our tendency to overestimate our own abilities, which is in line with previous studies where most people consider themselves to be more honest, more creative, and better drivers than others. This study shows that over-optimism, or the “better-than-average” effect, also applies to environmentally friendly behaviours,” says environmental psychology researcher Magnus Bergquist, the paper’s sole author.

Bergquist asked the participants to what degree sustainability and environmental friendliness shapes their behavior by asking how often they perform specific activities such as buying eco-labeled products, saving household energy, and reducing purchases of plastic bags. She also asked the participants to estimate how their behavior in this area compared to that of the average person.

The majority of respondents rated themselves as more environmentally friendly than others, be them friends or strangers. However, Bergquist says that their responses don’t reflect this view. The participants regularly overestimated their engagement in activities they performed often, the study reports, and this led them to conclude that they perform such activities more often than others.

Bergquist doesn’t want to rain on anybody’s parade. However, he notes that perceiving ourselves as more engaged in environmental efforts than our peers can reduce our motivation to act in a way that benefits the environment in the future. Overall, the study found, this mentality causes people to actually become less environmentally-friendly than the average individual.

One of the ways we can fight back against this faulty perception is to try and foster a more realistic and objective view of our own environmental efforts.

“If you think about it logically, the majority cannot be more environmentally friendly than others,” Bergquist notes.

“One way to change this faulty opinion, is to inform people that others actually behave environmentally friendly, and thereby creating an environmentally friendly norm. Social norms affect us also in this area, we know this from previous studies.”

The main takeaway from this study is that we’re all subjected to our own biases, wittingly or not. It’s not a crime — life, after all, is a deeply subjective experience. But if we don’t strive to be aware of our own biases, they can and will shape our behavior to a large extent.

The paper “Most People Think They Are More Pro-Environmental than Others: A Demonstration of the Better-than-Average Effect in Perceived Pro-Environmental Behavioral Engagement” has been published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

Beautiful ‘Capturing Ecology’ photo competition winners announced

Every year, the British Ecological Society (BES) runs the ‘Capturing Ecology’ photo competition to “celebrate the diversity of ecology”. This year’s finalists have just been announced and they definitely delivered on that goal. So let’s take a look at the charming and sometimes adorable moments that the photographers captured on film.

Worth a thousand words

The Overall Winner of the competition was an image of a Malagasy tree boa taken by Roberto García Roa, Ph.D., an evolutionary biologist at the University of Valencia. He wanted to showcase the plight of Madagascar, whose ecosystems have suffered severe damage at the hands of human poaching and fires.

“Red Night” / Roberto García Roa.

“Unfortunately, many areas of Madagascar are suffering huge anthropic pressures including poaching and fires, and big snakes are becoming increasingly difficult to see,” Roa explained on the submission. “During my visit to Madagascar, I had the pleasure of finding this outstanding snake and photographing it. To offer a dramatic scenario reflecting the conditions that these snakes are suffering, I used an external red light as a source of light and severe blurring to capture the environment.”

Professor Richard Bardgett, President of the BES, finds the image “stunning” and deserving of the Overall Winner prize, saying it “not only captures the beauty of the Malagasy tree boa, which is endemic to the island of Madagascar, but also its vulnerability, especially to hunting and fire.”

Nilanjan Chatterjee, Ms.C. at the Wildlife Institute of India, won the Overall Student Winner award for his picture titled Flames in Flumes, showing a plumbeous water redstart waiting for its hapless prey by a cascade.

“Flames in Flumes” / Nilanjan Chatterjee.
“Autumn Texture” / Mikhail Kapychka.

Kapychka’s photograph of a birch forest in the autumn is the Overall Runnerup of the competition.

Up Close and Personal

A category aimed at “displaying the intricacy of nature using close-up or macro photography.”

“Fluorescence” / Roberto García Roa.

Not content with simply winning outright, Roa also claimed the Up Close and Personal award with this picture of a fluorescent scorpion glowing under UV light. Don’t worry, the scorpion wasn’t the end of him — either in real life or in this competition.

Khristian Valencia won the Student award in this category with the picture below. The frog he captured “exhibits one of its less common morphs” of the species.

“Harlequin” / Khristian V. Valencia.

Dynamic Ecosystems

This category rewarded images that “demonstrat[e] interactions between different species within an ecosystem”

Roa claimed this award with this picture Small Warrior. It showcases a Malayan spider taking on an ant several times its size — and winning.

“Small Warrior” / Roberto García Roa.

The student award in this category went to Pablo Javier Merlo from the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba. Are You Seeing the Same as Me? shows a domestic cow and a chimango — a relative species of the falcon — pondering something over a breathtaking visage of the Beagle Channel (the southernmost tip of South America). I don’t know what they’re meditating on, but this is my personal favorite entry in the competition.

“Are You Seeing the Same as Me?” / Pablo Javier Merlo.

Individuals and Populations

“A unique look at a species in its environment, either alone or as part of a population” was the subject of this category.

The winner here was Felix Fornoff from the University of Freiburg with Sleeping Still. The image shows leafcutter bee offspring developing in intricate nests of several leaven layers constructed by adult bees.

“Sleeping Still” / Felix Fornoff.

The Student prize in this category was awarded to Khristian Valencia from the University of Antioquia, Colombia. Watchful shows a dazzling black-and-white snake fixing its gaze on its (soon-to-be-caught) prey.

“Watchful” / Khristian V. Valencia.

People and Nature

Looking for “an interesting and original take on the relationships between people and nature,” the award in this category went to Andrew Whitworth a Ph.D at the University of Glasgow and a member of the Osa Conservation group, for Why Did the Sloth Cross the Road?.

The photograph shows a female three-toed sloth navigating a busy road — luckily, she was spotted by the driver of an oncoming truck and everybody lived to see another day.

“Why Did the Sloth Cross the Road?” / Andrew Whitworth.

Gergana Daskalova, a student at the University of Edinburgh, Thawing Away, A human silhouette is dwarfed by the size of a retrogressive thaw slump on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island in Canada. The shifts resulting from these slumps can echo through the whole ecosystem. This photo was taken on an expedition supported by the National Geographic Society.

“Thawing Away” / Gergana Daskalova.

Ecology in Action

Molly Penny at the University of the West of England won this category for best “showcasing the practice of ecology in action” with The Rhino’s Annual Haircut. This annual procedure is protects the animals from poaching.

“Rhinos Annual Haircut” / Molly Penny.

Gergana Daskalova at the University of Edinburgh won the student prize in this category for capturing how drones are helping us better map climate change with Capturing Tundra Vegetation Change.

“Capturing tundra vegetation change” / Gergana Daskalova.

The Art of Ecology

The final category asked for “a creative and original take on photography denoting ecology”. Peter Hudson from Penn State University won with a picture of a heart-shaped flock of flamingos over Lake Magadi.

“For the Love of Flamingoes” / Peter Hudson.

Sanne Govaert from Ghent University captured a tiny, dew-laden Mycena spp. mushroom growing inside a rotten tree trunk.

“Teeny Tiny World” / Sanne Govaert.
Paper leopard.

The UN says humanity is causing an ‘unprecedented’ decline in biodiversity — and it’s picking up

A new report from the United Nations says that humanity is putting a never-before-seen strain on the planet — over 1 million species of plants and animals are facing extinction.

Paper leopard.

Image via Pixabay.

Species loss is accelerating to a rate tens or hundreds of times faster than in the past, the report said. More than half a million species on land “have insufficient habitat for long-term survival” and are likely to go extinct, many within decades, unless their habitats are restored. The oceans are not faring any better. However, the report also says that it’s not too late to fix the issue.

Remade in our image

“We have reconfigured dramatically life on the planet,” said UN co-chairman Eduardo Brondizio of Indiana University at a press conference detailing the report.

Conservation scientists from around the world convened in Paris to issue the 1,000-page strong report. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) included more than 450 researchers who drew data from 15,000 scientific and government reports. The report’s summary had to be approved by representatives of all 109 nations.

The damage isn’t evenly distributed across the Earth. Some of the harder-hit nations, such as small island countries, wanted the report to be broader and use more conclusive language. Other countries however, such as the United States, were cautious in the wording they used but agreed that “we’re in trouble,” said Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist for the World Wildlife Fund, who observed the final negotiations.

“This is the strongest call we’ve seen for reversing the trends on the loss of nature,” Shaw said.

The findings don’t just show a planet where plants and animals need our intervention to survive (our own actions). It also shows a world in which humanity has a harder and harder time living in, according to Robert Watson, a former top NASA and British scientist who headed the report. The loss of biodiversity threatens to impact food and water security, the ecological mechanisms upon which our societies are built, and our health, he told Associated Press. It will also have a massive effect on our economies and can potentially give rise to security issues as countries and later, individual communities and groups, fight for ever-scarcer resources. The poor in less developed countries bear the greatest burden, Watson adds.

Here are the five main ways humanity is driving down biodiversity today:

  • Clearing forests, grasslands and other areas for farms, cities, and other developments. About three-quarters of Earth’s land, two-thirds of its oceans and 85% of crucial wetlands have been severely altered or lost, the report said. This basically destroys the natural habitats that species rely on, driving them to extinction.
  • Overfishing: A third of the Earth’s fish stocks are experiencing overfishing, according to the report.
  • Continued emissions of greenhouse gases which drive climate change. Almost half of the world’s land mammals — not including bats — and nearly a quarter of the birds have already had their habitats hit hard by global warming.
  • Land and water pollution. Between 300 to 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, and toxic sludge are dumped into the world’s waters each year.
  • The introduction of invasive species that outcompete native plants and animals. The number of invasive alien species per country has risen 70% since 1970, with one species of bacteria threatening nearly 400 amphibian species.

“The key to remember is, it’s not a terminal diagnosis,” said report co-author Andrew Purvis of the Natural History Museum in London.

The report says that fighting climate change and species conservation are equally important and that work on the two problems should go hand in hand. Both problems exacerbate each other because a warmer world means fewer species, and a less biodiverse world means fewer trees and plants to remove heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the air.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, reported in March that 27,159 species are threatened, endangered, or extinct in the wild out of nearly 100,000 species biologists examined in depth. That includes 1,223 mammal species, 1,492 bird species, and 2,341 fish species. Nearly half the threatened species are plants. The present report estimates that up to 1 million species are trouble by extrapolating the IUCN’s 25% threatened rate to the rest of the world’s species.

The 2002 Biscuit Fire reburns the area of the 1987 Silver fire. Credit: Thomas Link.

Climate change-induced forest fires threaten iconic conifers in western US

Climate change is set to intensify summer droughts and increase forest fire frequency, with drastic consequences for unique bioregions of northern California and southwestern Oregon.

The 2002 Biscuit Fire reburns the area of the 1987 Silver fire. Credit: Thomas Link.

The 2002 Biscuit Fire returns the area of the 1987 Silver fire. Credit: Thomas Link.

Harvard University ecologists zoomed in on a region called the Klamath, a pocket of the Pacific Northwest. It’s one of the most biophysically complex areas in North America and a huge carbon sink. There are 29 species of conifers and various rare plants that grow only here in the entire world.

These sort of forests are well-adapted to wildfire but even the most resilient species may find it difficult to recover in the face of abrupt climate change. The wildfires are becoming more severe, a prime example being 2002’s Biscuit Fire, which burned 500,000 acres. In between the next forest fire, the conifers have to compete with more fire-resilient shrubs and other species, which can grow more quickly.

Thompson and colleagues simulated the next 100 years of forest dynamics in the Klamath, based on different climate change projections. Although the projections ranged from conservative to extreme, under all scenarios droughts are set to intensify, which will reduce plan survival overall.

“The Klamath is a challenging place to model future forests because the global models of future climate change (the Global Circulation Models) don’t agree about future precipitation in the region.  The models agree that it will be warmer, but some predict wetter and some drier.  So we ended up running all the analysis with four different climate change projections. Not surprisingly, the drier climate scenarios were associated with the largest losses of conifer forests,” Jonathan R Thompson, senior ecologist at Harvard Forest and Principle Investigator of the research project, told ZME Science.

The Bear Fire 1994 shows shrubs in the understory. Credit: Alan Tepley.

The Bear Fire 1994 shows shrubs in the understory. Credit: Alan Tepley.

Climate change will increase the intensity and frequency of wildfires in the region, allowing shrubs to prosper, which are able to quickly regenerate. In the process of repeated high severity fires, the shrubs squeeze out the conifers. “This is often referred to as a shrub trap, Thompson said.

What’s more, under warmest climate simulation, the Klamath sees fires that would break all records of burned forest area in the region. Even if recent climate events continue at their current intensity, the Klamath can expect to lose a third of its iconic conifers, destined to be replaced by shrubs over the coming century.

“These forests are among the most carbon dense in the world.  So, the replacement of old conifer forests with shrubs will mean much more carbon in the atmosphere.  It is also a major shift in the fire regime. This region has always supported a low to mixed-severity fires, meaning that frequent fires would perpetuate the forest condition,” said Thompson, who along with colleagues reported the findings in the journal Scientific Reports. 

The Harvard researchers are now working with the Forest Service and other forest managers in the Klamath “to develop regional scenarios of land management that might prevent the loss of forests or produce other outcomes the stakeholders see as favorable,” according to Thompson.


Fences threaten local fauna, instead of protecting it


Photo: conservationafrica.net

In some parts of the world you can find fences that stretch for hundreds of miles, delimiting protected areas or those populated with humans. The basic reasoning is that these fences are put in place to protect the local wildlife by preventing the spread of diseases, poachers and by helping helping managed endangered populations. The reverse may actually be true, according to a study published in the journal Science.

Livestock and wildlife don’t mix well, so farms and local governments have established  extensive fencing systems to ward of contact between the two and stop diseases like foot and mouth from spreading. These sort of fences, hundreds of miles long, are particularly common in South Africa. Researchers at Zoological Society of London report, however, that the effects produced are actually counter-intuitive.

The fences disrupt predator prey dynamics, such as the case of African wild dogs who have learned to chase they prey into fences where they become cornered. Fences also limit herds from grazing grounds, as elephants and wildebeest are now unable to reach the vast areas of land they require to support their population.

Fences may cause an ecological meltdown

A lot of people promoting the use of fences advocate that the most and foremost, these need to be put in place to separate human civilization from wildlife, which actually gathers local support for one reason or another. The study notes, however, that these aren’t that practical and most situations. After studying 37 fences in Southern India, researchers found that almost 50 percent failed to prevent the passage of elephants, demonstrating the difficulty in designing and maintaining fences.

“In some parts of the world, fencing is part of the culture of wildlife conservation – it’s assumed that all wildlife areas have to be fenced. But fencing profoundly alters ecosystems, and can cause some species to disappear,” said Rosie Woodroffe, lead author of the study.

It’s a bit naive to think that fences keep poachers out. Ironically, many fences come as a ready supply of wire for making snares.

The scientists involved in the study advise that a better design and implementation of fencing is warranted, and only in areas where these are necessary.

“An increased awareness of the damage caused by fencing is leading to movements to remove fences instead of building more. Increasingly, fencing is seen as backwards step in conservation,” concluded study co-author Sarah Durant, also of the Zoological Society.


Native plants on a California reserve (in bloom on mounds in background) are found in marginal, patchy habitats following invasion by exotic grasses (in green in foreground). Ecologists at the University of Toronto and ETH Zurich have found that, given time, invading exotic plants will likely eliminate native plants growing in the wild despite recent reports to the contrary. (c) James Cornwell

Exotic plant species drive native plants into extinction contrary to reports

Native plants on a California reserve (in bloom on mounds in background) are found in marginal, patchy habitats following invasion by exotic grasses (in green in foreground). Ecologists at the University of Toronto and ETH Zurich have found that, given time, invading exotic plants will likely eliminate native plants growing in the wild despite recent reports to the contrary. (c) James Cornwell

Native plants on a California reserve (in bloom on mounds in background) are found in marginal, patchy habitats following invasion by exotic grasses (in green in foreground). Ecologists at the University of Toronto and ETH Zurich have found that, given time, invading exotic plants will likely eliminate native plants growing in the wild despite recent reports to the contrary. (c) James Cornwell

Researchers at  University of Toronto and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich) have recently published a paper that claims exotic plant species do indeed eliminate native plants from the wildlife ecosystem, contrary to previous reports that found the threat unreal.

The ecologists argue that reports heralding invasive plants as non threatening are based on incomplete information, since not enough observational time had been granted. The researchers claim the impact invasive plants has on a native ecosystem isn’t felt immediately and requires some time before they dominate the habitat – a steady but sure fact.

“The impacts of exotic plant invasions often take much longer to become evident than previously thought,” says Benjamin Gilbert of U of T’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB) and lead author of the study. “This delay can create an ‘extinction debt’ in native plant species, meaning that these species are slowly going extinct but the actual extinction event occurs hundreds of years after the initial invasion.”

Native plants face dire competition – the battle is a slow one though

The whole conundrum comes from the fact that very few species have been found to become extinct as a result of exotic species. What happens, however, is that often native plants are moved out and forced to survive in  patchy, marginal habitats unsuitable to their nonnative competitors.

“Of particular concern is the possibility that short term persistence of native flora in invaded habitats masks eventual extinction,” says co-author Jonathan Levine of ETH Zurich.

The researchers visited the California reserve, a well known ecosystem to ecologists where the remaining native plant diversity can only be found in the marginal areas surrounding non-native plants. After performing experiments and gathering data, the scientists performed a quantitative model in order to determine what long term impact invasive plant species have on the local ones.

“Invasion has created isolated ‘islands of native plants’ in a sea of exotics,” says Gilbert. “This has decreased the size of native habitats, which reduces seed production and increases local extinction. It also makes it much harder for native plants to recolonize following a local extinction.”

“Our research also allows us to identify how new habitats for native flora could be created that would prevent extinction from happening. These habitats would still be too marginal for invaders, but placed in such a way as to create ‘bridges’ to other habitat patches,” says Gilbert.

Findings were reported in the journal PNAS.

source: University of Toronto