Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Can ecological research help cushion the blow of climate change?

Paul Ramsay working in the
mountains of Ecuador.
Photo: Paul Ramsay
Studies on high-altitude cushion and giant rosette plants offer insights into the effects of climate change in tropical mountains

by Chloe Turner

We are all aware of how human consumption is changing climatic conditions and affecting the Earth’s biodiversity. What you may not be aware of, however, is that species can sometimes be found in areas where you might not expect to find them if you base it solely on their environmental requirements. This is because of aspects of ecology, one being the interactions between species. The presence or absence of species can change factors such as light penetration and soil temperatures. A change in land use such as man-made fires or draining wetlands can alter the composition of ecosystems and result in species living in places that they would not otherwise inhabit.

A Plymouth university academic, Dr Paul Ramsay, has a keen interest in the distributions of organisms and their interactions with human land use. He has devoted 30 years of his career to the mountain ranges of the Andes, where he is unlocking some of the secrets that explain why species live where they do.  He hopes his work will help to halt some of the detrimental effects people have had on biodiversity in the Andes, and suggest ways that land managers can make better decisions for the future protection of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Paul works on strange-looking giant rosette and cushion plants that live in the mountains, 35 km above sea level. “It’s nice to know that these quite rare and weird species still exist in this world”, he says, but adds, “The existence of these species tell us how evolution works, about the way biodiversity develops through time, how species interact and how all of these things have responded in the past to climate change.

At the moment, he is studying thermal refuges of plants and animals at a fine scale (over centimetres) and unveiling key relationships between vegetation and soil temperature, and ideas for conservation in the face of future climate change.