Last week in Australia I was introduced to the stinger tree or gympie-gympie (Dendrocnyde moroides) , which is common in rainforests after a cyclone or other disturbance. It is a relative of the common nettle and doesn't look that bad, but is much more vicious. The pain from even a minor sting is intense and can hurt for a year afterwards. I was sorely tempted to give myself a "light" sting just to know what it felt like. Surely a light touch from any plant can't be that nasty? Judging by this video, I am very glad I didn't. Is this the nastiest plant in the world? And why would a plant end up being so overdesigned to subject such overwhelming pain?
After the excellent ATBC conference in Cairns, I spent a few days exploring the long term rainforest research plots of the Queensland Wet Tropics, scoping out a field campaign we will conduct here next year to collect plant traits, as we have done in Peru and Brazil on the CHAMBASA and BACABA field campaigns.
Australia's tropical rainforests cover a relatively small area (2 million hectares) but are rich in endemic species (species not found anywhere else). Half of the area is protected World Heritage status, and seems much better protected than most tropical rainforests I have seen. They are also amazing in the number of very ancient plant families (ferns, cycads, conifers, and ancient angiosperm families) that proliferate here, giving them the moniker of "the world's oldest rainforests". A quarter of the species are found only in the Australian rainforests, and most others only in the Australia-New Guinea biogeographical region. I was guided around by Matt Bradford of CSIRO, and Lucas Cernusak of James Cook University in Cairns, who will collaborate in next year's project.
I gave a talk at the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation today. It covers a broad perspective of what the Anthropocene is, what it means for the tropics and what w do about it. It is available for download here.
Tropical forests and the Anthropocene (50 MB).
At the annual meeting of the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) in Cairns, in the beautiful Wet Tropics of Queensland, Australia. This is the big annual meeting for tropical ecologists, and a wonderful rounded education of all that is happening in tropical ecology and conservation for anyone who attends.
I have just been elected a Council Member, and attended a few days of valuable and thought-provoking discussion what what a tropical biology association should be, and who it should be for.
We have also just launched a European subgroup of ATBC, to facilitate greater linkage and collaboration between European tropical forest researchers.
We have a new paper in Global Change Biology, led by Rosa Maria Roman Cuesta, examining the long term variation of fire occurrence in the high Andes. To our surprise, we found a spatially extensive and strong 5 year variation in fire occurrence, which seems to been driven by external climate drivers such as the sea surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean. Below is the abstract. The paper can be downloaded from the link below:
Román-Cuesta, R. M., Carmona-Moreno, C., Lizcano, G., New, M., Silman, M., Knoke, T., Malhi, Y., Oliveras, I., Asbjornsen, H. and Vuille, M. (2014), Synchronous fire activity in the tropical high Andes: an indication of regional climate forcing. Global Change Biology, 20: 1929–1942. doi: 10.1111/gcb.12538
Global climate models suggest enhanced warming of the tropical mid and upper troposphere, with larger temperature rise rates at higher elevations. Changes in fire activity are amongst the most significant ecological consequences of rising temperatures and changing hydrological properties in mountainous ecosystems, and there is a global evidence of increased fire activity with elevation. Whilst fire research has become popular in the tropical lowlands, much less is known of the tropical high Andean region (>2000masl, from Colombia to Bolivia). This study examines fire trends in the high Andes for three ecosystems, the Puna, the Paramo and the Yungas, for the period 1982–2006. We pose three questions: (i) is there an increased fire response with elevation? (ii) does the El Niño- Southern Oscillation control fire activity in this region? (iii) are the observed fire trends human driven (e.g., human practices and their effects on fuel build-up) or climate driven? We did not find evidence of increased fire activity with elevation but, instead, a quasicyclic and synchronous fire response in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, suggesting the influence of high- frequency climate forcing on fire responses on a subcontinental scale, in the high Andes. ENSO variability did not show a significant relation to fire activity for these three countries, partly because ENSO variability did not significantly relate to precipitation extremes, although it strongly did to temperature extremes. Whilst ENSO did not individually lead the observed regional fire trends, our results suggest a climate influence on fire activity, mainly through a sawtooth pattern of precipitation (increased rainfall before fire-peak seasons followed by drought spells and unusual low temperatures , which is particularly common where fire is carried by low fuel loads (e.g., grasslands and fine fuel). This climatic sawtooth appeared as the main driver of fire trends, above local human influences and fuel build-up cyclicity.
During my recent trip to the stunning Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, I found myself fascinated by what must be one of the most extraordinary places on Earth in the 21st century: North Sentinel Island, that was only just over the horizon to the west. The Andaman islands has a fascinating indigenous population, that on the main islands has largely suffered the same tragic fate of guns and germs as many native peoples worldwide, with the notable exception of the Jarawa who maintain a large tribal reserve on Middle Andaman. Despite over a century of colonization and settlement, the islands still hold vast stretches of lush tropical forest. The Andamanese population appears to genetically unique (e.g. as shown in this paper in Science), possibly isolated since the first modern human migration out of Africa along the southern coast of Asia to Australasia, around 40,000 years ago.
About 40 km west of the main group of islands, however, sits North Sentinel Island, a place which has experienced only the most limited and brief landings by visitors from the outside work. It is inhabited and fiercely defended by a native population of around 300 (though no-one knows for sure has no outsider has been onshore long enough to study). These are possibly the most isolated people on the planet, even more than the uncontacted groups of western Amazonia, which have contact and intermixing with neighbours.
The Sentinelese apparently survived the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and its after-effects, including the tsunami and the uplifting of the island, which significantly extend the island and uplofted coral reefs, disrupting this fishing grounds. Three days after the event, an Indian government helicopter observed several of them, who shot arrows and threw stones at the hovering aircraft with the apparent intent of repelling it. Although the fishing grounds of the Sentinelese were disturbed, they appear to have adapted to the island's current conditions.
Here is a video of the first (and one of very few) friendly contacts. Nowadays official policy is to leave the Sentinelese alone, although unofficial contacts do occur. In 2006 two fisherman who ventured near the island were killed.
In this world of global connection and the heat of the Anthropocene, it is thought-provoking to think of this island and these people still at the edge of the unpredictable currents of history
These two weeks we are conducting a field campaign on the canopy walkway at Wytham Woods, Oxford University's ecological research laboratory. This is partially to collect these data from the canopy trees at Wytham in anticipation of an overflight and lidar and hyperspectral mapping by the NERC aircraft next week, and partially to train up teams to conduct similar work in Ghana and Malaysian Borneo later this year and early next year. Participants include several students and researchers from Oxford, but also from Cambridge (David Coomes 'group), Aberdeen, Lancaster and Edinburgh, and the Forest Research Institute of Ghana (Stephen Adu-Bredu and Theresa Peprah).
The weather has been good this week and the woods have been idyllic: walking through the forest you we are bathed in glorious multi-layered green, a good dose of shinrinyoku, "forest bathing".
There is also a nice blog and more photos about this work here, by visiting researcher Ben Blonder.
[Some of these photos (the most wonderful ones!) are by Andrew Harrington (http://www.harringtonphotography.com/) and are not for reproduction for commercial purposes without permission]
I went to a talk today on Brazilian indigenous protests against deforestation, and the Belo Monte hydroelectric project. The highlight was seeing Chief Raoni Metuktire (with his famous lip disk) and Chief Megaron Txucarramãe of the Kayapó talking about their history of protest. In the 1980s and 1990s they were instrumental in highlighting the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon (most famously Chief Raoni with Sting) and pushing for the successful demarcation of indigenous lands. Today their vast indigenous territories are an island of green forest in an ocean of extensive deforestation. In a single astonishing lifetime Chief Raoni has gone from a young boy in an uncontacted Amazonian tribe to national and international activist and successful champion of Amazonian indigenous peoples.
Last week the Ecosystems Lab spent a wonderful day in the New Forest, hosted by two expert guides Jonathan Spencer (Forest Enterprise Head of Environment, England and former Senior Ecologist in the New Forest) and Jane Smith (Head of Planning and Environment in FE South District).
The New Forest is neither New (it was established by the Norman William the Conqueror as a royal hunting forest in around 1079), nor a forest in the modern sense (it has many areas of open, treeless heath). In the Norman sense a forest was an area for hunting by the elite declared to be outside (Latin foris) the common law of the land, i.e. local people were restricted from farming it or hunting.
What has emerged over the centuries is a fascinating and suprising stable social-ecological system. Forest Laws were enacted to preserve the New Forest as a location for royal deer hunting, and interference with the King's deer and its forage was punished. But the inhabitants of the area (commoners) had pre-existing rights of common: to turn horses and cattle) out into the Forest to graze (common pasture), to gather fuel wood to cut peat for fuel, to dig clay, and to turn out pigs between September and November to eat fallen acorns and beechnuts (pannage or mast).
We learned a huge amount about how histories, wars and individual shaped the nature of the land and forest. This probably true in most socio-ecological landscapes; what is astonishing and fascinating about the New Forest is that the events and histories are recorded in a thousand years of documentation and detailed research – in most places in the world, and especially in the tropics, we are almost blind to the social histories and events that have shaped a landscape.
There is a related post by Ben Blonder on this visit here.
There a new book, "Is the Planet Full?" by Oxford University Press, that provides and update and some interesting new perspectives on the question of how much impact we are having on the Earth, and how much more impact can the Earth support. I have a chapter, "the metabolism of a human-dominated planet", that takes a quantitative metabolic approach to the question "how big is humanity?". It examines human metabolism throughout human history, ranging from hunter-gatherer society through pre-industrial agricultural societies through to modern industrial societies. The introduction chapter to the book can be downloaded here, and my chapter can be accessed here. The book can be purchased from the OUP website or most other book suppliers.
Last weekend I had a wonderful family weekend at the Hay Book Festival, where I presented on my chapter together with Charles Godfray (who talked on food supply). The slides for the talk can be downloaded here and the audio file can be downloaded here. The talk explores a couple of ideas further, including the intriguing idea that much of Eurasia stalled in metabolic growth after the collapse of the Roman Empire for 1700 years before the industrial revolution.