Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Answer Lies in the Connections


For the longest time, the direction that biodiversity conservation has been taking is the conservation of species and the habitat that they live in. This is exemplified by organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which categorizes species according to their abundance and levels of extinction threats, allowing conservationist to direct their efforts to specific groups of organisms.
A quick refresher of elementary school science and high school biology reminds us that organisms do not live in isolation but are instead part of an immense web of interactions. When these interactions are intact, ecosystems are healthy and dynamic, able to respond to fluxes in environmental conditions and population changes. Earlier this semester, we explored a novel concept that could potentially change the direction of conservation, that is focusing on preserving interactions between species rather than species themselves. While recognizing that this was an interesting concept with conservation implications, I did not think too much into it and it remained just as a lingering thought at the back of my mind. Roughly a month and a half later, after spending time in various terrestrial and marine ecosystems, this dormant thought sprung back into life as we explored how forests were shaped through the processes of pollination and seed dispersal. These processes are key in the reproductive cycle of plants, which form the majority of biomass in all forests. With a huge diversity of plants in the forest, each species needs to ensure its pollen is delivered to a conspecific, a task that is by no means easy. Fortunately, through geological time, evolutionary forces have directed an interplay between plants and animals, with the former providing nutrients to attract the latter to provide pollen delivery services. Studying pollination syndromes at Monteverde was definitely an interesting look into how unique floral parts are, allowing plants to be matched up with very specific pollinators. In the same way, animals play a huge role in facilitating the dispersal of seeds away from parental plants, reducing intraspecific competition and reducing density dependent mortality. Without dispersers, even pristine looking forests are deemed “empty” and unlikely to display future recruitment and sustained growth.
While nature has programmed redundancy into this web of interaction through thousands of years of evolution, we are proceeding closer and closer to a tipping point as human development tears away at many of these crucial links. It is perhaps time for us to look at how interactions can be stabilized among members of the ecosystem, focusing on the connections rather than the nodes. This will give us a much needed push in ensuring the remaining natural areas are sustained well while we continue to direct efforts in restoring altered habitats and ecosystems. 
Donovan Loh
Duke University

No comments:

Post a Comment