The Drastic Decline of Creepy Crawlies and Winged Wonders

The insects of the world are incredibly numerous, diverse, critical to the web of life, and disappearing in alarming numbers. In my last post I mentioned the concept of shifting baselines syndrome and gave my own observational example of how, when I was much younger, I recalled the numerous bug splats on your car windshield that needed to be cleaned off every time you filled the gas tank, yet now it is rare to even get a single bug splat on your windshield. While doing research for this post, I found that this is a well-known observation and has been dubbed “the windshield effect”. In this post, I would like to explore this further and provide some insights on why we need to care about and protect the insect world. It’s a huge topic but I will work to keep it digestible by providing some specific examples.

If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos. — E. O. Wilson

DEFINITIONS

  • Biotic homogenization: The process by which ecosystems lose their biological uniqueness. This is an emerging, yet pervasive, threat in the ongoing biodiversity crisis. This phenomenon stems primarily from two sources: extinctions of native species and invasion of nonnative species. While this process pre-dates human civilization, as evidenced by the fossil record, and still occurs due to natural impacts, it has recently been accelerated due human-caused pressures.
  • Taxonomy: a hierarchical scheme of classification in which things are organized into groups or types based on shared characteristics. Today we still use an expanded version of the system developed by Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century. The categories, from broadest to most specific, are: Domain – Kingdom – Phylum – Class – Order – Family – Genus – Species.
  • Neonicotinoid pesticides: a class of chemical insecticides that act by causing neurotoxic effects on nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in the nerve synapse. This chemical is very toxic to invertebrates. Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors are also present in the nervous systems of mammals. There is concern that neonicotinoids may impact animals other than their insect targets (including humans). Neonicotinoids are known to have sub-lethal effects on bees’ foraging and colony performance.

Taxonomy

To start, let’s be clear about just what insects are. Insects belong to the Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Arthropoda, Class Insecta. There are at least 28 different Orders of insects; the pictures below show the 5 orders that include at least 100,000 species each —greater than the number of all known species of fish, reptiles, mammals, amphibians, and birds combined. WOW — Half of all known living organisms are insects! All insects have a chitinous exoskeleton, a 3-part body, 3 pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes, and one pair of antennae. They live in nearly all environments (including the ocean). Insects do NOT include centipedes, scorpions, spiders, woodlice, mites, and ticks.

Selected orders shown in the slideshow below: 1. Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths, 2. Coleoptera (beetles), 3. Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, hornets, sawflies, ants), 4. Hemiptera (cicadas, aphids, plant hoppers, bed bugs, sheild bugs), 5. Diptera (flies).

Insect Diversity and Biomass

The class Insecta originated on Earth about 480 million years ago, about the same time as terrestrial plants. Until recently, insects have had very low extinction rates; in one group of beetles studied (Polyphaga), there have been no extinctions in its entire evolutionary history, even during the mass extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous period (~66 million years ago).

Roughly 10 quintillion individual insects exist on the planet at any given moment. They make up about 80% of all the known animal kingdom species. About a million insect species have been discovered but it’s generally agreed that, by some estimates, about four million more have yet to be discovered. If you look at the food webs of any species habitat, you’ll find insects playing a role. To understand the importance of each species within a given web, see my previous posts. Although any individual insect species within a given food web may not be considered a keystone species, the larger group of insects are clearly vital to life on land.

Crucial Insect Ecological Contributions

Every insect on the planet is playing a role in the ecological machine. Each individual effort adds up to colossal benefits for life on Earth. Along with these insect *”services” provided, there are also insect “disservices”, for example, pest damage to agriculture, spread of diseases, negative actions as an invasive species, etc. As presented to the general public, these negative affects associated with insects are given far greater coverage than the benefits of insects. Often the insects negative affects in an ecosystem are due to imbalances in nature that were caused by humans.

*Note: I’m not a fan of the terms ecological “services” — if you do much reading about ecology you’re sure to come across the term. Whether it is meant this way or not, it smacks to me of “how does [something found in nature] contribute to improving humans’ life on earth”. We need to stop holding this warped view that all of nature is simply available to “serve” our needs and wants. We need to recognize the importance of the roles that each living thing on earth plays in keeping all of nature in balance so all can be well.

PROVIDERS: Insects are the meal of choice for many larger animals such as birds, bats, amphibians, and fish. These animals are in turn the meal of choice for even larger predators. The decline in insect populations is suspected to be the leading cause of recent declines in bird populations. Insect eating reptiles include geckos, anoles, and skinks. Insect eating mammals include tree shrews and anteaters.

DECOMPOSERS: Waste-eating insects, such as springtails, termites, beetles, etc, recycle nutrients back into the earth for plants to absorb and grow that would otherwise stagnate in dung, dead plants, and carrion. Without insects, dead organic matter would being to pile up. Insects are also used in sewage treatment plants to help decompose and filter matter along with neutralizing toxins.

PEST CONTROLLERS: Insects such as ladybirds, hoverflies, and wasps that eat other crop-threatening insects play the role of pesticides without chemicals, reducing costs to farmers and increasing yields. In addition to killing unwanted insects or weeds, pesticides and herbicides can be toxic to a host of other organisms including birds, fish, beneficial insects, and non-target plants. Surface and groundwater pollution due to pesticides is a worldwide problem. According to the soil scientist Dr. Elaine Ingham, “If we lose both bacteria and fungi, then the soil degrades. Overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides have effects on the soil organisms that are similar to human overuse of antibiotics. Indiscriminate use of chemicals might work for a few years, but after awhile, there aren’t enough beneficial soil organisms to hold onto the nutrients”. Pesticides are often considered a quick, easy, and inexpensive solution for controlling weeds and insect pests in urban landscapes. However, pesticide use comes at a significant cost. Weed killers can be especially problematic because they are used in relatively large volumes. The best way to reduce pesticide contamination (and the harm it causes) in our environment is for all of us to do our part to use safer, non-chemical pest control and weed control methods.

POLLINATORS: Nearly 90% of flowering plant species and 75% of crop species depend on pollination by animals — mostly insects. Overall, one out of every three bites of food humans eat relies on animal pollination. Insects also play a critical role in seed dispersal. For example, the seeds of many plants have structures (elaiosomes) that are packed with fats and other nutrition. Ants will carry off the seed, eat only the elaiosome, and leave the rest to sprout.

SOIL ENGINEERS: Termites and ants transform soil through their tunneling which aerates hard ground, helping it retain water and adding nutrients. In some regions of the world, introduction of termites has turned infertile land into cropland within a year.

The Problem

In the late 1980’s, a researcher launched a project to find out how insects were faring in different types of protected areas in Germany. He collected insects from 63 areas over the course of 20 years. In 2013, entomologists returned to two sites that were first sampled in 1989. The mass of trapped insects was just a fraction of what it had been 24 years earlier. The team that sifted through all this data found that between 1989 and 2016, flying insect biomass in these protected areas of Germany declined by 76%. Insect biomass studies conducted in other areas have shown similar results: a protected forest in New Hampshire found the number of beetles had decreased by more than 80% and the beetles diversity decreased by almost 40%. A study of butterflies in the Netherlands found their numbers had declined by almost 85% since the end of the 19th century. A study of mayflies in the upper Midwestern U..S. found their populations dropped by more than half just since 2012. A research station in the tropics of Costa Rica has found a 40% decrease in caterpillar diversity since 1997, and a drop in parasitoid diversity of about 55%. This data is particularly significant given that about 80% of all insect species live in the tropics. The geographic extent and magnitude of insect declines remain largely unknown — there is an urgent need for monitoring efforts, especially across ecological gradients, which will help to identify important causal factors in declines.

Earth is clearly in a biodiversity crisis, not surprisingly when you consider how much of the planet we humans have altered by mowing down forests, plowing up grasslands, planting monocultures, and pouring pollutants into our waters and the air. The rate of insect loss is significantly faster than other animal groups. It is not clear why this would be. Pesticide use would seem a logical culprit, however many of the places where steep declines have been reported are pristine landscapes where pesticide use is minimal. Climate change is suspected to be a major driving factor.

The Culprits and Potential Solutions

In a recent study, questions were posed to expert entomologists on the root causes of potential insect declines worldwide, 413 expert opinions were summarized regarding the relevance of threats to insects as follows (in order of importance):

  1. Agriculture (causing habitat loss and biotic homogenization)
  2. Climate change
  3. Pollution (includes pesticide use, the number one stressor for freshwater invertebrates)
  4. Natural system modifications
  5. Invasive species
  6. Residential and commercial development

The above list refers to all insects worldwide. The main stressors that affect any given insect family may vary and are dependent on their habitat and species. Insects — the most diverse class of animal organisms on the planet — are still severely understudied.

Climate change is believed to be one of the main drivers of insect population decline. Many insect species are very susceptible to extreme weather conditions — they are just not adapted to large fluctuations.. In the words of one researcher, “…the insects run out of food, they run out of cues, everything just falls apart.” Pesticide use and habitat loss are thought to be another main contributing factor in insect decline. The European Union has banned most neonicotinoid pesticides which several studies have linked to insect and bird decline. The German government had adopted an “action program for insect protection”, which includes restoring insect habitat, banning the use of insecticides in certain areas, and phasing out glyphosate (a commonly used herbicide). A group of more than 50 scientists from around the world have proposed a roadmap for insect conservation. It recommends taking aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, preserving more natural areas, imposing stricter controls on exotic species, and reducing the application of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation based here in Portland, Oregon is one of the few organizations in the world that is specifically devoted to invertebrate conservation. As a science-based organization, they both conduct their own research and rely upon the most up-to-date information to guide their conservation work. Their key program areas are: pollinator conservation, endangered species conservation, and reducing pesticide use and impacts. I highly recommend you take a look at their website to learn more about this great organization: https://xerces.org/. Their introductory video is worth watching:

A Few (kinda interesting) Insect Facts

  • Globe mallow bees don’t make hives; the females sleep in ground nests and males curl up inside the globe mallow flowers. If all the blooms are booked, a male bee will nestled alongside another bee and convert the single room to a double.
  • While many invertebrates fill the seas, and a small fraction of insect species live at the edges the ocean or in the intertidal zones, there is only one insect that lives on the surface of the open ocean: the sea strider (Halobates). This carnivorous insect sprints on the water surface looking for prey that has fallen onto the water, such as zoo- plankton, fish eggs, larvae and dead jellyfish. In turn, it provides a source of food for sea birds and surface feeding fish.
  • Researchers have observed chimpanzees catching insects and putting them into wounds on themselves or other chimps. They catch the insect, squeeze it between their lips to immobilize it, then place it on the wound moving it around with their fingertips, and finally removing it with their fingers or mouths. Sometimes the insect would be put in and out of the wound several times. At the least, it’s interesting behavior. Yet it seems quite possible that they are in some way treating the would….chimp TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge)!
  • Some insects have evolved into remarkably specialized roles within their habitats. The moth caterpillar (Ceratophaga vicinella) scavenges only on the tough keratin shells of dead gopher tortoises. You can see how the extinction of these specialized insects can unravel the balance in an ecosystem.
  • Dragonflies move each of their four wings independently, flapping each up and down and rotating them forward and back. They can move straight up and down, fly backward, hover and stop, and make hairpin turns at full speed or in slow motion. They can fly at speeds up to 30 mph. AND they can eat up to 100 mosquitos per day.
  • Many insects live off other insects — most parasitic wasps lay their eggs in the bodies of caterpillars, using their hosts as a source of nutrients. Other insects, known as hyperparasitoids, lay their eggs in or on the bodies of parasitoids. There are even insects that parasitize hyperparasitoids!
  • Fireflies have dedicated light organs under their abdomens that they use for finding mates. They do this by combining oxygen and a substance called luciferin they hold in special cells. This light produces no heat. Fireflies flash in patterns that are unique to different species. Some species synchronize their lighting — coordinating their flashes into bursts that ripple through the entire group of insects.

MAKING THE CONNECTION

I started writing this post with the vague notion that I now observe far fewer insects in the environment than I remember from decades ago, along with some sneaking suspicions about what some of the causes of this decline could be. During my research phase, I was particularly alarmed to discover just how widespread and drastic global insect die-off has occurred, and in such an incredibly short period of time. I hope, given the content I’ve included here, that you have also been able to make these connections: incredible diversity and overall biomass of the class Insecta, what they contribute to the overall balance of nature along with the importance of these contributions, and the causes for their decline (both proven and suspected by experts in the field).

It’s time for ALL people on this planet to change their relationship with nature, which requires some radical changes in how we live our lives. The damage we are currently causing to the planet is quite simply not sustainable. I suspect that on some level everyone knows this and many are afraid to acknowledge it because they do not want to give up their current way of life. There is often a push to “live in the moment”, which can be comforting and soothing, but we also must be disciplined in preparing for our future. We need to develop a new relationship, based on respect and gratitude, with the our incredible, miraculous home — earth. There are so many organizations and individuals around the world that are already engaged in this work. Some of the business sector is even recognizing the need for change and moving in the right direction. I encourage everyone to continue learning and take whatever actions you feel called to take to help support these efforts. It is only by the participation of everyone who calls the earth “home” that we can continue to live in comfort and harmony with nature.

WORKS CITED

Beaver: the Ultimate Keystone Species

A Bit of History:

During the nineteenth century, man’s extermination of any living creature that had fur or feathers was so extreme that some have dubbed the period the “Age of Extermination”. It is estimated that between 60-400 million beaver populated North America prior to the 1500’s. By the 1900’s, there were about 100,000 beavers left. We currently have about 15 million beaver — it is not an endangered species, but it’s numbers are certainly reduced from it’s historical representation. Let’s explore what makes beaver such an important keystone species with respect to wetland habitats.

DEFINITIONS:

  • Wetland: An area of land saturated with water. There are five types of wetlands: ocean, estuary, river, lake, and marsh. In this post, we are referring to river wetlands.
  • Hyporheic zone: Describes the area in a stream bed where the water moves in and out carrying dissolved gas and solutes, contaminants, particles, and microorganisms. Depending on the geology and topography, the hyporheic zone may be only a few centimeters deep or extend up to tens of meters deep. Both water mixing and storage happen here.
  • Hyporheic exchange: Refers to the speed at which water enters or leaves the hyporheic zone. The rate of exchange can be quite variable depending on a number of structural and geomorphic factors.
  • Incised stream / Degraded channel: A stream channel in which the bed has dropped and as a result, the stream is disconnected from its floodplain.
  • Floodplain: The flat area adjoining a river channel constructed by the river in its present climate and overflows during moderate flow events.
  • Algal blooms: A rapid increase in the population of algae in a freshwater or marine system. Algal blooms refer to microscopic unicellular algae, not macroscopic algae. The bloom is a result of excess nutrient (like nitrogen or phosphorous from fertilizers) entering an aquatic system and causing excess growth.

Wetland Habitats — Why are they Important?

We now recognize wetlands to be critical habitat for a healthy ecosystem and focal points of biodiversity, however they were historically viewed as places of darkness, disease and death. In short, they were considered wastelands that needed to be converted to usable land. It would be impossible now to restore our landscape such that it could support the historical number of beaver seen in the early 1800’s as the landscape is too altered by humans — homes, roads, pastures, and orchards with many streams that have degraded to the point that beaver are unable to restore them to wetland areas. Ben Goldfarb, in his book Eager quotes Kent Woodruff of Washington’s Methow Beaver Project as saying “We’re not smart enough to know what a fully functional ecosystem looks like, but beaver are.”

In the western U.S., wetland habitats cover about 2% of land area yet support about 80% of species biodiversity. These habitats provide numerous critical functions, such as: water filtration, flood and erosion control, food and shelter for fish and wildlife, absorbing and slowing floodwaters, absorbing excess nutrients (e.g. nitrogen from fertilizers), heavy metals, and sediments before they reach rivers, lakes, and other water bodies. They also serve to provide wildfire breaks in the landscape.

The Amazing Beaver

The North American Beaver (Castor canadensis) are best known for their unrelenting desire to build dams, often to the distress of land owners that don’t particularly want their land flooded. Beaver are rodents that weigh about 60 pounds and can live up to 24 years. Interesting physical characteristics include:

  • Extremely dense fur — this feature is what the early pioneers sought to make hats and use for trading.
  • Duck-like hind feet that make them agile swimmers.
  • Ability stay underwater for up to 15 minutes.
  • A second set of eyelids that function as goggles underwater.
  • A second set of lips that can close behind their front teeth so they can chew and drag branches underwater without drowning.
  • A multi-functional tail serving as a rudder, fat storage and thermoregulatory device, and alarm system by slapping it against the water to warn other beavers about the presence of predators.
  • Amazing incisors that grow continuously and self-sharpen as they gnaw down trees.

Beaver are totally herbaceous, eating the cambium (inner sugary layer of trees) mostly from willow, aspen, cottonwood, as well as other green vegetation. They create two types of structures with trees; the lodge which serves as living space with underwater tunnels and an elevated nesting chamber, and dams. Generally 2 – 8 beavers inhabit one lodge — the adult mating pair and three years of offspring. Beaver build both of these structures in order to extend their habitat. They are quite vulnerable to predators (bear, cougars, coyotes, and wolves) on land but much safer underwater, so by extending the surface area of water they are providing their own protection. Dams hold water in low-gradient areas creating ponds which submerge their lodge entrances and give them a place to stash their food caches. The ponds created by the dams also irrigate water-loving trees allowing beavers to operate as rotational farmers — they’ll cut down vegetation in one area while cultivating their next crop in another.

A beaver lodge I came upon while enjoying a picnic in southern France

Beaver dams range in size from quite small (1 x 3 feet) to quite large (15 feet high by a half-mile long). There are three basic requirements needed in order for beaver to set up shop in a given riparian area; water (wadable creek-type), a low valley landscape that allows a gentle stream flow to avoid blowing out their dams, and deciduous vegetation in sufficient quantity for food and construction material. If a stream is allowed or forced to become incised, it becomes challenging for beavers to establish themselves since incised streams tend to blow out the dam(s) during times of heavy stream flow. The pond created by the dam provide a number of benefits to the beaver: underwater escape from predators, increased foraging areas, allowing logs and branches to float in the water, and ensuring the entrances to their lodges remain underwater. Sometimes several dams are built by the same colony. If beaver inhabit an area that already has existing and adequate pond coverage, they will not build dams.

The Benefits of Beaver Dams

American farmers collectively add about twenty million tons per year of fertilizers to agricultural fields. Rain sweeps much of the excess nitrogen and phosphorous from these fertilizers into rivers and eventually into lakes and seas. Suburban lawns, septic tanks, and even cars contribute to this nitrogen dump into watersheds. This nutrient stew fertilizes algal blooms that decompose when they die off, devouring dissolved oxygen in the water and giving rise to “dead zones” — lifeless expanses of anoxic water that drive away all fish and kill stationary bottom dwellers. Global oceans are afflicted by nearly a hundred thousand square miles of dead zones. One solution to this crisis is healthy wetlands which, like kidneys, filter out suspended nutrients and other pollutants long before they reach the sea. In addition to beaver ponds capturing and storing excess nutrient run-off, one study has shown that bacteria living in the sediment of beaver ponds broke down added nitrate, effectively purging the pollutant from the water by converting it to nitrogen gas.

Beaver are amazing architects of wetland ecosystems. Here’s a short list of other species that benefit from sharing beaver habitat:

  • Primary producers such as algae and diatoms increase as more sunlight becomes available (not to be confused with an algal bloom), this leads to more secondary producers such as micro-and macroinvertebrates. The secondary producers form the base of the food web that young salmon and steelhead rely on.
  • Aquatic insects live in the spaces created by dams and lodges.
  • Waterfowl and other bird species increase due to the abundance of aquatic insects for food as well as increased vegetation for protection from predators.
  • Amphibians, turtles, and lizards are more abundant near beaver ponds.
  • Wetland plant species increase in areas where beaver are present. Initial loss of trees and shrubs due to flooding opens up the landscape to allow more sunlight into the expanded riparian area.
  • Fish communities are more diverse. Fish expend less energy foraging in the slow productive waters of beaver ponds.
  • Mink and raccoon hunt crawdads and snakes in beaver complexes.
  • Nutrients from beaver feces breed zooplankton.
  • Sawflies lay eggs on beaver-browsed cottonwood shoots.
  • Moose follow beaver ponds to feed on the wetland plants.
  • And on and on….

The potential ecological benefits of restoring beaver to appropriate landscapes include: higher water tables; reconnected and expanded floodplains; more hyporheic exchange; higher summer base flows; expanded wetlands; improved water quality; greater habitat complexity; more diversity and richness in the populations of plants, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals; and overall increased complexity of the riverine ecosystems.

In light of all the ecological benefits attributed to beaver, it becomes clear why many scientists consider beavers to be the “ultimate keystone species”.

Making the Connection

Conservation biologists point out that people often fall victim to shifting baselines syndrome. This is a type of long-term amnesia that causes successive generations to accept its own degraded ecology as normal. Salmon fisherman that boast of catching ten-pound chinook forget that their fathers once hauled out fifty-pound chinook. Current biologists who marvel at mayfly hatches never experienced the insects emerging in clouds so thick their bodies piled up in three-foot windrows. Every year our standards slip a little further; every year we lose more and remember less. Currently, there are more than 142,500 species on The IUCN Red List, with more than 40,000 species threatened with extinction, including 41% of amphibians, 37% of sharks and rays, 34% of conifers, 33% of reef building corals, 26% of mammals and 13% of birds. This data is stunning and should be causing everyone to act as if their hair were on fire. Those of us that have been around for many decades can usually relate to the concept of shifting baselines syndrome; I recall from my younger days how the insect splats on a car windshield used to require regular windshield cleaning whereas now you hardly notice any splats.

The intersection of human and wildlife habitats tends to be fraught with conflict. When beavers choose urban settings to set up their household, this conflict plays out with flooded roads or fields and unwanted vegetative chewing. The tendency is often for humans to either physically remove (relocate) or kill the offending wildlife. When there is an understanding of the benefits that the beavers can provide even in an urban setting, a wiser alternative is to consider each situation and look at the full range of alternatives available for mitigating the problems while allowing the beaver to stay. These alternatives include placing fencing around culverts, notching inactive dams, and placing deterrents on active dams that may inhibit rebuilding, placing protective wire meshing on trees. It is also important to provide education where needed to engage farmers, city managers, etc. in understanding the benefits that beaver will provide to a local ecosystem. This has been done successfully in many areas around the country. Several states now have beaver management protocols in place.

Our world will always be improved when we work with nature instead of against it. For far too long man has viewed the natural world as a resource to be exploited without regard for the harm caused in the process. More and more people are coming to realize, now that our one and only planet is in crisis, that we need to better understand, protect, and preserve everything that exists in the natural world because it is all interconnected and necessary for the health of the whole. I hope this blog is helping you to understand that when we sever the links between vital species in an ecosystem there are always negative repercussions if not total collapse. There are many incredible individuals and organizations working to provide sustainable solutions to problems that crop up in the interface between human activities and various species that are trying to go about their lives.

For more information about beaver, I recommend this site: https://www.beaversww.org/. I’m including a video from this site.

WORKS CITED:

The Mighty Diatom and the Air we Breathe

Raise your hand if you know what a diatom is. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t raise your hand; you are in the majority of people around you. Maybe you recall your 7th grade biology teacher mentioning them, but you never quite understood what they were. I say it’s high time we understood them a bit better given that these mighty diatoms are responsible for producing about 50% of the oxygen we breathe through that amazing process — photosynthesis. Yes, something that is microscopic and virtually unknown by most people is responsible for a critical element, O2, that is vital to sustaining life on earth.

DEFINITIONS:

  • Micron: Also known as a micrometer — a unit of length equal to one millionth of a meter.
  • Organelles: Specialized structures that perform various jobs inside cells. Literally “little organs”; just as familiar organs (heart, lungs, kidneys, etc.) serve specific functions to keep an organism alive, organelles serve specific functions to keep a cell alive.
  • ATP: Adenosine Triphosphate — an organic compound that provides energy to drive many processes in living cells. It is found in all known forms of life. The human body recycles its own body weight equivalent in ATP every day.
  • NADP+: Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate — a cofactor used in anabolic reactions (like the Calvin Cycle). NADPH is the reduced form of NADP+.
  • Stroma: Tissue that serves a structural or connective role in a cell.
  • Plankton: Includes a diverse collection of organisms found in water or air that cannot propel themselves against a current. Some examples include bacteria, algae, protozoa, plant spores, pollen. Most are microscopic however some are quite large, including jellyfish. They are a crucial food source for many small and large aquatic organisms.

What are Diatoms?

Diatoms are single-celled algae found in the oceans, waterways, and soils of the world. They are the only organism on the planet with cell walls composed of transparent, opaline silica. They are quite beautiful and unique when viewed under the microscope displaying an amazing kaleidoscope of shapes. I’ve added a few pictures below. You can also check out some of the references below for good pictures. Their size ranges from 2 – 500 microns with the largest being about the width of a human hair. They constitute about half the organic matter found in the ocean. There are an estimated 20,000 – 2,000,000 different species of diatoms with more being discovered every year. Various species have developed structural adaptations to be able to move about or attach themselves to rocks or other organisms. This may allow them to stay afloat or resist wave action as needed depending on their environment. Diatom species are particular about the quality of water they live in.

What is Photosynthesis?

Like plants, diatoms and other algae use sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and simple carbohydrates during the process known as photosynthesis — didn’t your 7th grade teacher also mention something about photosynthesis during biology class? Considering that photosynthesis is essential for the existence of all life on earth, it seems important to have a basic understanding of that process. Here’s my very simplified explanation of how photosynthesis works.

The photosynthesis process takes place in cell organelles called chloroplasts. Chloroplasts contain a green-colored pigment call chlorophyll — chlorophyll is responsible for the green coloration in plant leaves. Phototsynthesis occurs in two stages: a light dependent reaction and a light independent reaction (the Calvin Cycle). The light dependent reaction occurs in the thylakoid cells where energy from sunlight is converted to ATP and NADPH which is then used to power the Calvin Cycle. During the light reaction, the hydrogen from water is used and oxygen is produced. The light independent reaction, or Calvin Cycle, is also referred to as the carbon-fixing reaction. This reaction occurs in the stroma of the chloroplast. Water and carbon dioxide, along with the ATP and NADPH are converted to sugar (glucose) molecules that feed the plant.

Diatoms in the Great Lakes

Diatoms comprise the bottom rung of an aquatic food web. Zooplankton (small protozoans that feed on other plankton) feed on algae, smaller fish feed on zooplankton, bigger fish feed on smaller fish, and on up the food chain. Diatoms are busy photosynthesizing year round, even in lakes covered by both ice and snow. Diatoms need just the right balance of depth and sunlight to do their thing. If they sink too deep they don’t get enough sunlight, and if they are higher in the water column they can get burned. Snow may be protective against too much sunlight. Without diatoms to support zooplankton during the winter months, the lakes productivity for the rest of the year suffers.

Researchers have found that, over the past 115 years, individual diatoms are getting smaller and this decrease in size seems related to climate change. As the lakes become warmer, the bigger diatoms sink and are unable to harvest adequate sunlight to photosynthesize. The trend is toward smaller diatoms and fewer of them. Additionally, invasive species of mussels that have been introduced into the Great Lakes have caused the numbers of diatoms to plummet; mussels can filter the amount of water in Lake Michigan (removing plankton, including diatoms) in about a week or less. In Lake Erie, diatom numbers have plunged 90% in the last 35 years. A loss of this magnitude in a keystone species should be alarming to everyone, but again, think about how many people even know what a diatom is.

How do Diatoms Reproduce?

I’m suspecting you remember more about human reproduction from your 7th grade Biology teacher than diatom reproduction, but hang in here…this is fascinating!

Diatoms reproduce by both an asexual and a sexual process. The asexual process is primary and occurs by binary fission to produce two new diatoms with identical genes. You can see from the diagram below that the frustule splits to form two daughter cells; one with the larger half of the frustule (the epitheca) and one with the smaller half (the hypotheca). The diatom that receives the hypotheca remains smaller than the parent. With continued asexual reproduction, the average cell size of the diatom population decreases.

In order to restore the diatom population to it’s original cell size, sexual reproduction occurs through meiosis. A special structure, called an auxospore, is formed. This is a unique type of cell that possesses silica bands rather than a rigid silica cell wall. This unique cell allows the cell to expand to it’s maximum size. Once an auxospore divides by cell division, it produces a normal diatom cell which then continues to get smaller with each asexual cell division.

Diatoms in the Fossil Record

The silica cell walls of diatoms are inorganic, so they do not decompose. These structures are found in the fossil record back as far as the early Jurassic (~185 million years ago). It has been suggested that the evolutionary ability of these organisms to produce a resting stage (the Auxospore) along with the ability to photosynthesize had an adaptive advantage over other organisms during intense climatic, tectonic, and geochemical changes that led to a mass extinction period close to the Permian-Triassic boundary (~251 million years ago). After the mass extinction event, many niches (habitats) in the aquatic realms opened up and diatoms appear to have diverged at this time and evolved to develop silicic cell walls. Thus, they are found in greater abundance in the fossil record since this time. The fossil record shows diatom diversity to be very sensitive to global temperature. Warmer oceans, particularly warmer polar regions, have in the past been shown to have substantially lower diatom diversity. Thus, future warmer oceans could, in theory, result in a significant loss of diatom diversity although it is unclear how quickly this change would happen.

MAKING THE CONNECTION:

I hope I have led you to a greater understanding and appreciation of what diatoms are and the important role they play in sustaining life on earth. By studying the fossil record, we know diatoms have been with us for millions of years and have evolved over time as climactic and geochemistry conditions changed. We also know that in order for organisms to adapt to changing conditions (evolve), changes need to occur relatively slowly. We can observe today how local conditions in lakes and oceans are affecting diatom populations. We can also acknowledge that there is a lot more to learn about how diatoms adapt, and how quickly, to changing conditions. One thing seems clear — we should be showing more gratitude and respect for these amazing organisms. So the next time you take a big gulp of air (like now) remember to give thanks to the mighty diatoms who work tirelessly to keep us supplied with oxygen!

REFERENCES:

The Oregon Alligator Lizard and his Food Web

Several years ago my son came home from a hike and shared with me a picture of a lizard he found. After a bit of quick detective work we identified it as an Oregon Alligator Lizard (Elgaria multicarinata scincicauda). Coincidentally, I was engaged in doing coursework to become an Oregon Master Naturalist. We were currently studying the Fundamentals of Ecology and were given an assignment to create a food web for any given species. What you see below is the food web I created for the Oregon Alligator Lizard.

DEFINITIONS:

  • Food Chain: A linear system showing a succession of organisms whereby each species is eaten in turn by another species.
  • Food Web: A graphic model showing many food chains linked together to depict the feeding relationship of organisms in an ecosystem.
  • Apex Predators: The predator at the top of a food chain that is not preyed upon by any other animal.
  • Keystone Species: A species that has a large impact on its environment relative to its abundance. It plays a critical role in a food web by determining the types and numbers of various other species in the ecosystem. Without the keystone species, an ecosystem would be drastically different or collapse. Keystone species are sometimes, but not always, apex predators.
  • Trophic Levels: Describes the hierarchy in a food web which groups organisms based on the same number of steps removed from the primary producers.

The Oregon Alligator Lizard is a subspecies of the Southern Alligator Lizard (Elgaria multicarinara). It is a reptile native to the Pacific Coast of North America from Washington state to Baja California. This species has adapted to many diverse habitats however it is partial to foothill oak woodlands. Although it is listed by the IUCN Red List as “least concern” it is still a declining species due to habitat loss. It is carnivorous and feeds on a wide variety of prey — basically anything it can get it’s mouth on. They are also known to be cannibalistic, eating their own young, or adult males and females eating each other. This has been demonstrated in my food web diagram by the arrow going from and pointing to the lizard.

Cannibalism is an interesting, if somewhat disturbing, ecological interaction between species. It has been recorded in more than 1,500 species. Not unexpectedly, cannibalism increases in environments where other usual food sources are not meeting the needs of individuals. However, there are other reasons why individuals of a species may turn to cannibalism: as a way to regulate population numbers and increase access to necessary resources (shelter, territory, food), and increased mating opportunities. A feedback loop occurs when cannibalism decreases a species population density to the point where it becomes more beneficial to forage in the environment for other food sources than for cannibalism to occur.

A food chain refers to a succession of organisms in an ecological community where each organism is dependent on the next as a source of food. The basic food chain for the Alligator lizard would look like this:

Hawk —> Snake —> rodent —> Alligator lizard —> cricket —> vegetation

A food web is made up of a complex of interconnected food chains. Organisms in a food web are grouped into trophic levels. The basic trophic level categories are Producers, Consumers, and Decomposers.

Producers, or autotrophs, make up the first trophic level — they make their own food and do not depend on other organisms for nutrition. In my food web example, the plants and algae are the autotrophs.

Consumers are categorized as follows:

  • Primary consumers are herbivores (plant eaters). They are considered to be at the second trophic level. In my food web the insects, tadpoles, and snails/slugs are part of the second trophic level.
  • Secondary consumers eat herbivores. They are at the third trophic level. In my food web, the spiders, alligator and other lizards are part of the third trophic level.
  • Tertiary consumers eat secondary consumers. They are at the fourth trophic level. In my food web, the snakes, wolves, hawks and owls are in the fourth trophic level.
  • There may be additional trophic levels of consumers before a food chain reaches it’s top predator — the apex predator. Apex predators have no natural enemies except humans. In my food web, the eagle is the apex predator.

Decomposers complete the food web by eating non-living plant and animal remains. They turn organic waste into inorganic material thereby returning nutrients to the soil or ocean for use by autotrophs to begin a new food chain. In my food web, the fungi, algae, and ground beetles are all decomposers. Beetles are actually considered both consumers and decomposers.

It makes sense to think of a food web as it relates to an ecosystem. Some examples of ecosystems include a forest, desert, marine, tundra, grassland, coral reef. My food web example would be part of a freshwater ecosystem. Food webs are defined by their collective biomass, or the available energy in the living organisms. The web’s biomass decreases with each trophic level; there are more autotrophs than herbivores, more herbivores than carnivores, and relatively few apex predators. This allows the ecosystem to remain in balance and recycle biomass.

Every link in a food web is connected to at least two others. When one link in the food web is broken, particularly if there is a decrease or extinction of a keystone species, the entire food web is weakened or may collapse all together. Habitat loss is often a culprit in the weakening of food webs. Consider the decline in the salmon populations over that past few decades. One of the main reasons for this decrease is the loss and degradation of habitat from dam construction, stream pollution, lack of shade trees and woody debris in streams, over-irrigation, etc. With less salmon available, bears are forced to turn to other available food sources like ants. Since ants are decomposers, fewer ants means fewer nutrients returning to the soil which can support fewer autotrophs.

MAKING THE CONNECTION:

Once you have an understanding of how interconnected various species are simply on the level of who-eats-whom, and the necessary components that keep this cycle in balance, it becomes easier to understand why biodiversity is important to all life on earth. All life is dependent on the availability of water and nutrients to sustain a given organism. Humans, in general, have lost their intimate connection to the land and the importance of caring for the other beings we share the planet with. The ease of a quick drive to the grocery store has disconnected us from the understanding of how the foods found within were produced — what beings gave their lives so that we can eat and continue our own existence? Every meal should be taken in gratitude and commitment to ensure the harvest is sustainable. We depend on healthy ecosystems for our long-term survival.

Note: To comment on this post, click on the post title and scroll to the bottom of the page

REFERENCES:

https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/food-web/

https://ielc.libguides.com/sdzg/factsheets/southernalligatorlizard/summary

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannibalism

https://www.fws.gov/salmonofthewest/poorhabitat.htm

https://extension.oregonstate.edu/mn

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Trees and their Fungal Friends

The relationship between plants and fungi is a very old story. Plants were able to move from water to land about 400 million years ago because of their relationship with fungi which served as their root systems until they evolved to develop their own roots. Millions of different fungal species inhabit the earth and a majority of these dwell in the soil.  Soil fungi are grouped into 3 categories: decomposers, mutualists, and pathogens. In this article, we are only looking at the mutualists; specifically, the fungal species that have adapted to live communally with trees where both tree and fungi benefit from establishing a relationship.

DEFINITIONS:

  • Hyphae — individual fungal threads, usually between 1-10 thousandths of a millimeter in diameter. A single hyphae can grow up many meters long.
  • Rhizomorphs –—an aggregation of hyphae intertwining like strands of a rope making a “root-like” structure.
  • Mycelium — The thallus, or vegetative part, of a fungus made up of a mass of branched hyphae. Mycelial networks can extend over tens or hundreds of meters.
  • Mycorrhiza — a mutual, symbiotic relationship between a fungus and a plant, unlike either fungi or roots alone.
  • Symbiotic relationships — Broadly defined as relationships occurring between living entities. Although there are several types of symbiotic relationships, for this story, we are looking at one subtype: mutualistic symbiosis.
  • Ecosystem — A community of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment, interacting as a system.

Trees thrive when they live together in a forest. A single tree will struggle to survive on its own, however many trees together create an ecosystem that produces a protective environment in which the trees can live to be very old. Since every tree is a valuable member of the community, trees have developed several ways to support and nourish each other. This is true for trees of the same or different species. There are several ways trees communicate and nourish each other above ground, however we are going to focus on how they do this underground.

Indigenous peoples have long understood that trees communicate with and nourish each other. Only recently have scientists used modern tools and techniques to explain just how this amazing communal network occurs. The most important means of underground communication is by participation in a mycelia fungal network — the relationship between tree roots and the fungal hyphae present in the soil. These hyphae form networks known as mycelium which infiltrate and connect tree roots of the same or different species. Over centuries, a single fungus can cover many square miles and network an entire forest, enabling the sharing of water and nutrients. The mycelial network can also transmit very low voltage electrical impulses to trees which communicates information about insects, drought, and other dangers. This vast underground mycorrhizal network can be thought of as the “internet” of the soil and is often referred to as the “wood wide web”.

Another service fungi provide trees is the filtering out of any heavy metals in soil. These diverted pollutants turn up in the fungi’s fruiting body (i.e. mushrooms). Fungi will ward off bacteria or other destructive fungi that are trying to invade the tree. This tree/fungi relationship can go on for hundreds of years, however if conditions in the environment become unhealthy, the fungi may die out. At that point the tree may hook up with a different fungal species that settles in at its feet. Every tree species has multiple options for mutualistic fungal partners.

I’ve focused above on the benefits a tree derives from its relationship with a fungal partner however, as I mentioned, this is a mutualistic partnership. What is the benefit for the fungi?

Payment for the services the fungi provide to the trees is in the form a nutrition – sugar and other carbohydrates – which the fungi cannot produce on their own. The fungi retain about 30% of the carbohydrates the tree produces, thank you very much.

Some species of fungi are considered “host specific” and will partner only with a specific tree type (e.g. birches or larches). Others, like chanterelles, get along with many different tree types. Underground competition is fierce which works to the benefit of the trees; it is only when all the fungal species die out that the tree becomes vulnerable. Because fungi are dependent on stable conditions, they support a variety of species in order to ensure that one tree species doesn’t manage to dominate. Fungi can store and later share resources (particularly nitrogen and phosphorous) when the soil becomes depleted. In some tree/fungal relationships where the soil becomes depleted of nitrogen, the fungi will release a deadly toxin into the soil which causes minute organisms such as springtails (tiny insects that live in leaf litter, compost piles, and soils) to die and release nitrogen tied up in their bodies, forcing them to become fertilizer for both the tree and the fungi.

Saplings (young trees) growing in a shady area that do not receive enough sunlight to perform adequate photosynthesis often receive assistance from older established trees called “hub trees” or “mother trees” to provide water and nutrients via the mycorrhizal network. Studies have shown that trees can recognize the root tips of their relatives and favor them when sending nutrients. Through the mycorrhizal network, hub trees detect distress from their neighbors and send them needed nutrients. During a recent walk in the coastal forest south of Coos Bay, Oregon I came upon the tree pictured below. I was reflecting on the tortured life this tree must have lived when I look up at the canopy and was amazed to see branches that still had green fir needles — it was still living! Further inspection led me to realize that tree next to it (in the far left of the picture) had a huge root leading right to the crippled tree, most likely providing the nutrients needed for the older tree to remain alive. Quite possibly this younger tree is the offspring of the older tree and demonstrating that both older and younger trees take care of each other as needed.

MAKING THE CONNECTION: People are generally aware of the many benefits trees provide to the natural world including removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, production of oxygen, provision of shade and habitat for numerous species, wood and fruit production, to name just a few. It’s easy for humans to take for granted the gifts that trees provide to our ecosystems. Having a deeper understanding of how trees are able to grow and thrive in community with the help of their fungal friends helps foster greater respect and gratitude for both of these species. Although the mycelial network is largely invisible to human awareness, knowing of its existence and the important role it plays in nurturing our forests is an important connection to make in understanding how symbiotic relationships between species are crucial to maintaining balance in natures ecological processes.  Try to imagine a world without trees. It would be a world vastly different from the one we live in — one devoid of most, if not all, terrestrial life forms.

FURTHER READING AND REFERENCES:

Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate. 2015. Germany: Random House GmbH.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass. 2013. Canada: Milkweed Editions.

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detailfull/soils/health/biology/?cid=nrcs142p2_053864

https://www.arboristnow.com/news/mycorrhizae-my-favorite-kind-of-fungi

https://preservationtree.com/blog/how-mycorrhizal-fungi-help-trees-communicate

https://sciencing.com/symbiotic-relationship-8794702.html

https://www.nationalforests.org/blog/underground-mycorrhizal-networkhttps://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-poetic-mind-bending-tour-of-the-fungal-world/

Welcome!

Welcome to my blog. Come on in, grab your favorite beverage, make yourself comfy. My goal in writing this blog is to introduce you to some of the symbiotic relationships found in the natural world that may surprise and delight you. All life is dependent on symbiotic relationships between species. Understanding the interconnectedness found in the natural world will hopefully lead to an understanding of the importance of the earth’s biodiversity and inspire you to set forth on your own path to help nurture and protect our precious ecosystems. Although this topic has the potential to go many directions, and dive quickly into complexity, I keep the relationships presented limited to two or three species or subjects in one post. In order to verify the accuracy of information presented I seek out several reliable sources of information.

I have B.S. degrees in both Geology and Medical Technology and although my working career was in Medical Technology, I have always held a deep interest in the natural world which has propelled me to investigate, observe, contemplate, and appreciate the finely tuned choreography of the natural world. In 2017 I became certified as an Oregon Master Naturalist in order to learn more about the ecosystems in Oregon and to join in the efforts of various local organizations to preserve and protect our natural areas. This blog serves to educate and further inspire both of us.

I acknowledge that you, the reader, may or may not have a scientific background or training, however I make no assumptions that you are familiar with scientific terms that are not in our common vocabulary. You will see that I include a section to define terms, as needed, to help with overall understanding of the discussion. I will also include reference links for those that want to read further on the information presented.

I hope you enjoy reading this blog as much as I will enjoy writing it. Please click the “Follow NATURAL CONNECTIONS” button at the bottom of the page and share the site with anyone you think may be interested in reading the posts. I welcome your feedback and ideas for topics to include in future posts in the comments section.

Carole