Category Archives: Conservation

Old Italian trees: a step toward worldwide recognition?

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Some years ago I wrote an article (you can read it here) about the importance of trees, especially old trees, and how their ecological role is different from that of a young tree.

old_tree

Ancient trees are ecological preciosities and need to be preserved for the sake of their ecosystems. Photo by flickr user loshak.*

In Italy, there are specific laws erected to protect ancient trees, especially if they are unique for their species or have some sort of aesthetic or cultural value. Recently, their importance for the preservation of a variety of lifeforms has also started to be recognized. A recently published article by a group of Italian researchers (see below) compared the noteworthy old trees in Italy recorded in a previous list and a new list. They conclude that the new inventory has considerable improvements, although some issues remain, including the presence of exotic, even invasive, species in the list.

But such initiatives are at least important as a first step that may guide us to a better understanding and management of old trees, which are precious elements, but continue to decline worldwide.

Read the study for free:

Zapponi, L.; Mazza, G.; Farina, A.; Fedrigoli, L.; Mazzocchi, F.; Roversi, P. F.; Peverieri, G. S.; Mason, F. (2017) The role of monumental trees for the preservation of saproxylic biodiversity: re-thinking their management in cultural landscapes. Nature Conservation 19: 231–243.

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Going a long way with your mouth open to new tastes

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Everybody knows that human activities have driven our environment toward an unfortunate situation. The most popular forms of human impact include pollution, deforestation and overexploitation of natural resources, but certainly an important factor in remodeling ecosystems is the invasion of species.

While humans move around the world, they carry many species with them, either intentionally or not, an some of them establish successfully in the new environment, while others do not. But what makes some species become successful invaders while other are unable to do so?

It is clear for some time that having a broad niche, i.e., a broad tolerance in environmental conditions and a broad use of resources is very important to succeed in invading a new habitat. Food niche breadth, i.e., the amount of different food types one can ingest, is among the most important dimensions of the niche influencing the spread of a species.

I myself studied the food niche breadth of six Neotropical land planarians in my master’s thesis (see references below) and it was clear that the species with the broader niche are more likely to become invasive. Actually, the one with the broadest food niche, Obama nungara, is already an invader in Europe, as I already discussed here.

obama_marmorata_7

A specimen of Obama nungara from Southern Brazil that I used in my research. Photo by myself, Piter Kehoma Boll.*

But O. nungara has a broad food niche in its native range, which includes southern Brazil, and likely reflected this breadth in Europe. But could a species that has a narrow food niche in its native range broaden it in a new environment?

A recent study by Courant et al. (see references) investigated the diet of the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, that is an invasive species in many parts of the world. They compared its diet in its native range in South Africa whith that in several populations in other countries (United States, Wales, Chile, Portugal and France).

Xenopus_laevis

The African clawed frog Xenopus laevis. Photo by Brian Gratwicke.**

The results indicated that X. laevis has a considerable broad niche in both its native and non-native ranges, but the diet in Portugal showed a greater shift compared to that in other areas, which indicates a great ability to adapt to new situations. In fact, the population from Portugal lives in running water, while in all other places this species prefers still water.

We can conclude that part of the success of the African clawed frog when invading new habitats is linked to its ability to try new tastes, broadening its food niche beyond that from its original populations. The situation in Portugal, including a different environment and a different diet, may also be the result of an increased selective pressure and perhaps the chances are that this population will change into a new species sooner than the others.

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References:
Boll PK & Leal-Zanchet AM (2016). Preference for different prey allows the coexistence of several land planarians in areas of the Atlantic Forest. Zoology 119: 162–168.

Courant J, Vogt S, Marques R, Measey J, Secondi J, Rebelo R, Villiers AD, Ihlow F, Busschere CD, Backeljau T, Rödder D, & Herrel A (2017). Are invasive populations characterized by a broader diet than native populations? PeerJ 5: e3250.

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Land snails on islands: fascinating diversity, worrying vulnerability

by Piter Kehoma Boll

The class Gastropoda, which includes snails and slugs, is only beaten by the insects in number of species worldwide, having currently about 80 thousand described species. Among those, about 24 thousand live on land, where they are a very successful group, especially on oceanic islands.

The Hawaiian Islands alone, for example, have more than 750 snail species and there are more than 100 endemic species in the small island of Rapa in the South Pacific. This diversity is much higher than that in any continental place, but the reason for that is not completely understood.

Mandarina

A land snail of the genus Mandarina, endemic to the Ogasawara Islands, Japan. Photo by flickr user kmkmks (Kumiko).*

One of the most likely explanations for this huge diversity on islands is related to the lack of predators. The most common predators of snails include birds, mammals, snakes, beetles, flatworms and other snails. Most of those are not present in small and isolated islands, which allows an increase in land snail populations in such places. Without too much dangers to worry about, the community of land snails n islands can explore a greater range of niches, eventually leading to speciation.

Unfortunately, as always, the lack of danger leads to recklessness. Without predators to worry about, insular land snails tend to lay fewer eggs than their mainland relatives. If there is no danger of having most of your children eaten, why would you have that many? It is better to lay larger eggs, putting more resources on fewer babies, and so assure that they will be strong enough to fight against other snail species. Afterall, the large number of species in such a small place as an island likely leads to an increased amount of competition between species.

But why is this recklessness? Well, because you never known when a predator will arrive. And they already arrived… due to our fault.

The diversity of insular land nails was certainly affected by habitat loss promoted by humans, but also by predators that we carried with us to the islands, whether intentionally or not. These predators include rats, the predatory snail Euglandina rosea and the land flatworm Platydemus manokwari, the latter being most likely the worst of all.

800px-platydemus_manokwari

The flatworm Platydemus manokwari in the Ogasawara Islands. Photo by Shinji Sugiura.

This flatworm arrived at the Chichijima Island, part of the Ogasawara Islands in the Pacific Ocean, in the early 1990s and in about two decades it led most land snail species on the island to extinction and many more are about to face the same fate on this island and on others. Not being prepared for predators, these poor snails cannot reproduce fast enough to replace all individuals eaten by the flatworm.

We have to act quickly if we want to save those that are still left.

See also: The New Guinea flatworm visits France – a menace.

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ResearchBlogging.orgReferences and further reading:

Chiba, S., & Cowie, R. (2016). Evolution and Extinction of Land Snails on Oceanic Islands. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 47 (1), 123-141 DOI: 10.1146/annurev-ecolsys-112414-054331

Sugiura, S., Okochi, I., & Tamada, H. (2006). High Predation Pressure by an Introduced Flatworm on Land Snails on the Oceanic Ogasawara Islands. Biotropica, 38 (5), 700-703 DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-7429.2006.00196.x

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Friday Fellow: Crystalline crestfoot

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Even in the smallest pools or ponds of freshwater lost in a field, the diversity of lifeforms is amazing. Sadly, these environments are one of the most damaged of all ecosystems on earth and we probably have led many tiny species to extinction. Today’s fellow, however, is still alive, and its name is Lophopus crystallinus, or as I decided to call it, the crystalline crestfoot.

lophopus_crystallinus

A colony of Lophopus crystallinus. Photo by Natural History Museum, London.*

The crystalline crestfoot is member of the phylum Bryozoa, sometimes called moss animals. In fact, it was the first bryozoan to be described. As other bryozoans, the crystalline crestfoot lives as a colony of individuals attached to substracts in the lakes and ponds where they exist, which includes Europe and North America. The individuals are not fully independent and have specialized functions within the colony, thus acting as a single superorganism. As a general rule, bryozoans, including the crystalline crestfoot, are filter feeders, extracting particles and microalgae from water.

Despite being considerable tolerant to eutrophication (increase of  organic matter in water) and heavy metal pollution, the crystalline crestfoot is yet threatened by other forms of human impact, such as climate change and certainly by the destruction of its habitat. Once an abundant species, the crystalline crestfoot is now rare and declining. It is currently regarded as a threatened species in the United Kingdom and is the only bryozoan to have a Species Action Plan. Let’s hope we can find a way to avoid it to be wiped out from this world.

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ResearchBlogging.orgReferences:

Elia, A., Galarini, R., Martin Dörr, A., & Taticchi, M. (2007). Heavy metal contamination and antioxidant response of a freshwater bryozoan (Lophopus crystallinus Pall., Phylactolaemata). Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, 66 (2), 188-194 DOI: 10.1016/j.ecoenv.2005.12.004

Hill, S., Sayer, C., Hammond, P., Rimmer, V., Davidson, T., Hoare, D., Burgess, A., & Okamura, B. (2007). Are rare species rare or just overlooked? Assessing the distribution of the freshwater bryozoan, Lophopus crystallinusBiological Conservation, 135 (2), 223-234 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2006.10.023

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Friday Fellow: Paraná pine

by Piter Kehoma Boll

As the first conifer Friday Fellow, I decided to choose one of my beloved ones, the Paraná pine, Araucaria angustifolia, also known as Brazilian pine or candelabra tree.

The Paraná pine can reach up to 50 m in height, although most trees are smaller than that. They have a very particular shape and are easily distinguished from the surrounding forest where they occur, the so-called Mixed Ombrophilous Forest or Araucaria Moist Forest, in southern Brazil. The trees have a cylindrical trunk with a dark and thin bark that detaches in large and flexible pieces, being gray on the outer surface and reddish on the inner one. The crown changes its appearance during the development, being conical in young trees and with a candelabrum-like shape in mature specimens. Mature trees usually stand with their crowns above the forest canopy, which gives the Araucaria moist forest its particular look. The leaves grow in a spiral pattern around the stem and are very hard with a sharp point that can easily pierce through the human skin.

araucaria_angustifolia

A group of Paraná pines in Campos de Jordão, Brazil, close to the northernmost distribution of the species. Photo by Vinícius Ribeiro.*

The species current distribution is almost restricted to Brazil, from northern Rio Grande do Sul to southern São Paulo, with some small populations occurring in neighboring areas of Argentina and Paraguay. Once an abundant species, its population has been drastically reduced due to the heavy logging until the middle of the 20th century and the exploitation for the use of its seeds, called pinhão in Portuguese. As a result, it is currently considered as Critically Endangered by IUCN.

araucaria_angustifolia2

An adult tree in the municipality of Colombo, Paraná, Brazil. Photo by Mauro Guanandi.*

The paraná pine is a dioecious species, i.e., males and females are separate plants. As most conifers, it is pollinated by the wind. The large cones, which take two years to become ripe, contain a number of large and edible seeds used as food by many animals, as well as by humans. Pinhões cooked in salty water is a typical dish in southern Brazil during winter. One of the main seed dispersers of the Paraná pine is the azure jay, Cyanocorax caeruleus, which buries the seeds for future use.

araucaria_angustifolia3

A cone and lose seeds of Araucaria angustifolia in a market. Photo by Marcelo Träsel.**

As most (if not all) conifers, the Paraná pine forms mutualist associations with fungi, such as the glomeromycete Glomus clarum. Thus, in order to preserve this amazing tree, it is also necessary to guarantee the preservation of all its partner species, such as mycorrhizal fungi and seed dispersers.

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ResearchBlogging.orgReferences:

Angeli, A. (2003). Araucaria angustifolia (Araucaria). Departamento de Ciências Florestais – ESALQ/USP. Available at: <http://www.ipef.br/identificacao/araucaria.angustifolia.asp&gt;. Access on January 26, 2017.

IUCN (2016). Araucaria angustifolia The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species DOI: 10.2305/IUCN.UK.2013-1.RLTS.T32975A2829141.en

Soares, T. S. (2004). Araucária – o pinheiro brasileiro. Revista Científica Eletrônica de Engenharia Florestal, 2 (3).

SOUZA, A. (2007). Ecological interpretation of multiple population size structures in trees: The case of Araucaria angustifolia in South America Austral Ecology, 32 (5), 524-533 DOI: 10.1111/j.1442-9993.2007.01724.x

Zandavalli, R., Dillenburg, L., & de Souza, P. (2004). Growth responses of Araucaria angustifolia (Araucariaceae) to inoculation with the mycorrhizal fungus Glomus clarum. Applied Soil Ecology, 25 (3), 245-255 DOI: 10.1016/j.apsoil.2003.09.009

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Don’t let the web bugs bite

by Piter Kehoma Boll

If you think spiders are scary creatures, today you will learn that they are scared too. But what could scary a spider? Well, a web bug!

We usually think of spider webs as an astonishing evolutionary achievement of this group of arachnids and a very efficient way to capture prey without having to pursue them. Webs are sticky, resistant, and only spiders themselves can move freely through them. The only problem is that this is not true.

emesaya_feeding

A thread-legged assassin bug (Emesaya sp.) feeding on a spider after invading the spider’s web in the Western Ghats, India. Photo by Vipin Baliga.*

A group of bugs that conquered the spider world are the so-called thread-legged assassin bugs, which comprise the subfamily Emesinae of the assassin bugs (family Reduviidae). As the name implies, the assassin bugs are a group of true bugs (suborder Heteroptera) that are expert killers of other creatures.

During their evolution, the thread-legged assassin bugs seem to have acquired a special taste for spiders and throughout the world they are usually associated with this eight-legged predators. In many cases, such as the one seen in the picture above, the bugs prey on the spiders, having developed the ability to move through the webs. They usually produce vibrations on the web that attract the spiders. Those, thinking that they caught a prey, are lured directly to their death in the legs and proboscis of the terrible bug.

Some thread-legged assassin bugs have, however, found another way to harass spiders: by stealing their food. In the latter scenario, the bugs usually wait close to or on the spider’s web and, when an insect is caught, they steal it from the spider by ripping it off the web. This kind of behavior is called kleptoparasitism, which means “parasitism by stealing”.

But how can spiders avoid this bug nightmare?

Until recently, it was thought that spiders were safe inside caves. Although emesinid bugs do occurr in caves, their association with spiders seemed to be weaker or non-existent there. But new findings are revealing that they pursue our arachnid fellows even to the deepest abysses of Earth.

The earliest cave-dwelling thread-legged assassin bug known to prey on spiders is Bagauda cavernicola, from India. Its spider-eating habits are known since the first decades of the 20th century.

The second species, Phasmatocoris labyrinthicus, was found almost a century later, in 2013, in Arizona, USA. More than only preying on spiders, such as the species Eidmanella pallida that lives in the same cave, P. labyrinthicus seem to have developed the ability to manipulate abandoned spiderwebs and use them to detect and capture prey for their own consumption. Only a single instance of such a behavior has been recorded and the species’s behavior needs further studies.

phasmatocoris_labyrinthicus_eating

Phasmatocoris labyrinthicus feeding on the spider Eidmanella pallida in the Kartchner Caverns, Arizona, USA. Photo extracted from Bape, 2013.

Now, only 3 years later, there are new evidences of more thread-legged assassin bugs molesting spiders in caves. And this time the observations were made in Minas Gerais, Brazil. One individual of the bug species Emesa mourei was seen standing on the web of a recluse spider (Loxosceles similis) while the spider was at the web’s edge. Another specimen of E. mourei was seen feeding on a fly near the web of a pholcid (cellar spider). The fly and the legs of the bug had vestiges of silk, indicating that the bug stole the fly from the spider. Another bug species, Phasmatocoris sp., was observed on a web of the cellar spider Mesabolivar aff. tandilicus. If this species of Phasmatocoris manipulates spider webs the same way that P. labyrinthicus seems to do is something yet to be investigated.

emesa_mourei_eating

Nymph of Emesa mourei feeding on a fly that it apparently stole from a pholcid spider in the cave Lapa Arco da Lapa, Minas Gerais, Brazil. Photo by Leonardo P. A. Resende, extracted from Resende et al., 2016.

With three different and very distant records of thread-legged assassin bugs associated with spiders in caves, it is clear that the poor arachnids cannot get rid of those bugs even if they run down into the bowels of the Earth.

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ResearchBlogging.orgReferences:

PAPE, R. (2013). Description and Ecology of A New Cavernicolous, Arachnophilous Thread-legged Bug (Hemiptera: Reduviidae: Emesini) from Kartchner Caverns, Cochise County, Arizona Zootaxa, 3670 (2) DOI: 10.11646/zootaxa.3670.2.2

Resende, L., Zepon, T., Bichuette, M., Pape, R., & Gil-Santana, H. (2016). Associations between Emesinae heteropterans and spiders in limestone caves of Minas Gerais, southeastern Brazil Neotropical Biology and Conservation, 11 (3) DOI: 10.4013/nbc.2016.113.01

Wignall, A., & Taylor, P. (2010). Predatory behaviour of an araneophagic assassin bug Journal of Ethology, 28 (3), 437-445 DOI: 10.1007/s10164-009-0202-8

Wygodzinsky, P. W. 1966. A monograph of the Emesinae (Reduviidae, Hemiptera). Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 133:1-614.

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Friday Fellow: Giant Kelp

by Piter Kehoma Boll

This week we’ll stay in the sea and meet on of the most impressive algae, the giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera. It is called giant for a good reason, since it can grow up to 50 m in length and form real forests in the sea. Being able to grow 60 cm in a single day, it has the fastest linear growth of any organism on Earth.

The giant kelp is a brown algae, so it is not related (at least not closely) to green or red algae, but it is a relative of the tiny diatoms that cover the ocean. It grows in cold waters along the Pacific Coast of the Americas and close to the coast of the countries near Antarctica, such as Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

macrocystis_pyrifera

It’s a really beautiful alga, isn’t it? Photo by California Academy of Sciences.*

This amazing organism is composed by a thallus that branches at the base and then continues as a single and very long stalk from which blades develop at regular intervals on only one side. At the base of each blade, there is a gas  bladder that helps the whole organism to stand in a more or less upright position.

The huge kelp forests in the oceans are an important ecosystem and many species depend on them to survive, including other algae. Humans also use the giant kelp either as a direct food source or as a source of dietary supplements, since the alga is rich in many minerals, especially iodine and potassium, as well as several vitamines.

macrocystis_pyrifera2

The kelp forests sustain a huge diversity of lifeforms in the oceans. Photo by Stef Maruch.**

In the last decades, the kelp populations are decreasing rapidly. This is most likely caused by climatic changes, as this alga cannot develop in temperatures above 21°C. The giant kelp is, thus, just one more victim of global warming. And if it goes extinct, a whole ecosystem will be gone with it.

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ResearchBlogging.orgReferences:

Foster, M. (1975). Algal succession in a Macrocystis pyrifera forest Marine Biology, 32 (4), 313-329 DOI: 10.1007/BF00388989

Wikipedia. Macrocystis pyrifera. Available at . Access on January 19, 2007.

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