Blog - Flora & Fauna
Trees in trouble ?
A lot of research work now focuses on the resilience of woodlands and forests in the light of climate change, that is their ability to cope with conditions like drier, hotter summers and/or warmer/wetter winters. It has generally been assumed that trees at the limit of their range in dry regions would be most affected by climate change (with rising temperatures and less water). However, a major study of some six million tree annual ring samples, (involving 120+ species) coupled with analysis of historical climate data has shown that trees in drier regions show a certain resilience to drought. Trees seemingly become less sensitive to drought as they approach the edge of their range. Trees in wetter climates are less resilient when they experience drier conditions or drought. It seems probable that many species in wetter woodland and forest ecosystems will face significant challenges if the climate does move to a drier and warmer state. Assisted migration may be needed. One idea is to ‘exploit’ the genetic diversity found at the edge of a species range. The slow natural migration of trees may not be able to keep pace with the speed of climate change. Full details of this study by the University of California can be found here : Drought sensitivity in mesic forests heightens their vulnerability to climate change The effects of climate change have become very clear in recent times. This last year witnessed:- Record breaking wild fires in Canada, with the smoke extending across to the East coast of the States. [caption id="attachment_40597" align="aligncenter" width="675"] Canadian forest fire[/caption] Heat waves in parts of America , for example, Phoenix (Arizona) suffers the best part of a month with temperatures of 43oC. Parts of the North Atlantic Ocean saw unprecedented temperatures The global temperature in July was 1.5oC above the pre-industrial average, September saw temperatures 1.8oC above the pre-industrial average. Parts of Chile and Argentina saw a ‘heatwave’ in the middle of their winter. It is clear that ‘unchartered waters’ lie ahead.
The importance of woodlands to bees.
The diet of bees has changed over the years. In the past, bees were able to forage and collect pollen and nectar from a variety of plants. With the spread of highly mechanised agriculture, increasing urbanisation and road network - now their options are somewhat limited. Large fields of monocultures, for example, of oil seed rape are now common. Whilst oil seed rape is a good source for foraging bees and bumblebees, they need to collect nectar and pollen from a variety of sources so that they get a range of nutrients, such as the essential amino acids. Without these particular amino acids, the growth and development of bees is affected, as is their resistance to disease and their ability to raise the brood. It is important that our pollinators are able to find a range of plants / pollen to provide all their nutrients. Whilst wild flowers [aka weeds], like dandelions, ragworts, and clovers are a lifeline for bees and bumblebees, recent research at the University of East Anglia has shown that woodlands can offer important habitats for bees, isuch as the leaf canopy. The research team studied 15 woodland sites in agricultural areas across Norfolk (in Spring). Within the woodlands, they looked at the bee activity in the understorey the woodland edge and at different levels in the tree canopy. They found that bees were active high up in the sunlit tree canopy, and their activity was particularly high near flowering sycamore trees. Red tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) were busier in the canopies than elsewhere. The understorey and woodland edges were also significant contributors to bee activity. This study emphasises the importance of woodland habitats for the wild bee community.
Fungi helping bark beetles !
The woodlands blog has previously reported on the damage being wreaked by bark beetles. These beetles may be small (less than a centimetre in length) but their effects on the western forests of North America has been immense. Some areas have lost 90% of their conifers. Outbreaks of these beetles have been increasing in size and severity. Indeed, across Europe, the eurasian bark beetle (Its typographus) has killed millions of conifers. Whilst bark is broadly protective, it can also offer a home to certain insects. Bark beetles lay their eggs just below the bark so that when the larvae hatch, they can feed on the nutrient-rich living tissue of the cambium and phloem. Consequently, the tree's transport systems begin to fail. The beetles may also introduce disease-causing fungi and bacteria. Ageing stands of trees coupled with warmer winters, which help the overwintering stage of the insect, have contributed to the spread of bark beetles. . Conifers, by their nature, are not defenceless. When a pine tree is cut / wounded, it produces a pale yellow and sticky fluid - RESIN to seal the cut or wound [see above image]. This material helps prevent the entry of pests or pathogens, and can stem water loss. The resin may trap insect invaders as witnessed by those trapped in time capsules of amber. Resin is rich in terpenes, these are used in the building of many complex organic molecules and contribute to the make-up of the volatile oils, produced by many plants. Terpenes are made from units of isoprene, which has the formula C5H8. So the basic formula of a terpene is (C5H8)n, where n is the number of isoprene units that have been joined together. Terpenes are also readily available in coniferous oils, which contribute to the unique smell of a pine forest or a burning log. [caption id="attachment_40973" align="alignleft" width="300"] Old and dying tree[/caption] These ‘chemical defences’ should trap, poison or deter an insect invader, such as the bark beetle. But it would seem that bark beetles ‘don’t mind’ these defences. Research suggests that the eurasian bark beetle might have an ally. Certain fungi (from the genus - Grosmannia) are found in association with these beetles. When the Grosmannia fungi infect spruce trees they alter the chemical profile the trees, so that infected trees produce different volatile chemicals - ie they smell different. The bark beetles are able to detect these differences and exploit this ‘breach’ of the trees natural defences. The unique chemical profile of infected trees and the pheromones produced by the beetles probably help explain the swarming behaviour of the bark beetles. A heavy beetle infestation results in the death of a tree. However, there is a possible positive in this rather sad tale. At present, traps for bark beetles rely solely on using pheromones but if the pheromones can be combined with the chemicals produced by the fungi then it opens the door to more effective beetle traps.
10 surprising facts about British Woodlands
There are now more deer in the UK than there have been for 1,000 years. Probably between 650,000 and 2,000,000, of which about half live in Scotland. Dormice like sleeping and can sleep for up to 7 months a year. UK woodlands are home to half the world’s flowering bluebells. There are 15,000 species of fungi, on land, in water and even on plants and animals. Swallows migrate annually to Southern Africa travelling 6,000 miles twice a year. Grey squirrels have become a problem because they were released deliberately, in 1876. Half the deer species in the UK were escapees - three of our six deer species, being Muntjac, Sika, Chinese Water Deer. Conifers have been around so long that they were dinosaur food - about 300 million years. The oldest British trees predate Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. One of the oldest is the Fortingall Yew in Scotland, estimated to be as much as 3,000 years old. Not all conifers have cones - the Juniper, for example, has fruits that are tiny, round, fleshy and berry-like.
Wildlife in Scotland
NaturScot is Scotland’s nature agency. It monitors and reports on all aspects of the natural environment. It has published a report on its terrestrial bird breeding species and it is a somewhat mixed report. Some of the most ‘famous’ species associated with Scotland, such as the black grouse have declined significantly during the period of study (1994 - 2019). The grouse population has halved, and the kestrel, greenfinch and lapwing populations are also in decline. Woodland populations of Capercaillie have also fallen. The largest grouse in the world, the capercaillie was once widespread but suffered local extinction in the eighteenth century and was reintroduced in the C19th. It is now only found in old pine forests and mainly in the Cairngorms National Park. The Capercaillie are now red-listed and protected in the UK. [The Pine Marten which feeds in part on the eggs of game birds was almost lost in the nineteenth century, due to farmers and gamekeepers trapping them.] The fall in bird numbers has been associated with changes in climate, notably warmer and wetter weather coupled with extreme events (such as flooding and heat waves). Whilst some species have suffered as a result of the changing weather, others seem to have prospered, including some that do not ‘traditonally’ make their way to Scotland. The great spotted woodpecker is one such species, its numbers have increase by 500%, bullfinch and red numbers have also increased. Gold finches and magpies are now more common on farmlands in Scotland. various measures could help offset some of these declines,.such as the diversification of woodland (more tree species) restoration of peatlands Creation of habitats on farmland legal predator control deer exclusion to allow regeneration removal of deer fencing, (where feasible) as capercaillie and black grouse are known to fly into this and injured as a result. One example of the benefits of deer fencing is to be seen in the Glen Lyone woodlands. Historically, this area was part of the royal hunting grounds of Cluanie and was home to capercaillies, wildcats and lynx. Nineteenth century maps show a significant area of woodland, but by the 1990’s less than a hundred of the ancient pines were left. The oldest pine in the area dates back to the C14th century, and many others are several centuries old. However, the area was heavily grazed by deer, which reduces regeneration as young seedlings / saplings get eaten. Now “Trees for Life” have erected new deer fencing, which hopefully will allow natural regeneration of pine forest in the area. Calendonian Forest once covered much of the Highlands but now less than 2% of it survives. Full details of this project (and a video) may be found here ; https://treesforlife.org.uk/scotlands-oldest-wild-pine-saved/
Many organisms help to disperse seeds in woodlands or forests, from squirrels, birds, bears, foxes, rabbits. The fruits / seeds may be eaten and pass through the gut of the animal or may be caught in their fur, or stuck to them (like the seeds of mistletoe or cleavers). However, there is another 'army of helpers' - ANTS. Ants may disperse seeds in two distinct ways. The first way is through the activity of harvester ants. Like squirrels and other ‘gatherers’, harvester ants move through the wood or forest gathering seeds and transporting them back to their colonies. As they transport the seeds, some get dropped or lost on the way. Others may be ‘cached’ / stored, in or near the colony for later consumption, but then are ‘forgotten’. Such seeds may later germinate and establish themselves somewhere away from the parent plant. This accidental dispersal is sometimes referred to as ‘seed predation’. a second method of seed dispersal by ants involves a more intimate association between particular plants and specific ant species.Some plants, when they form the seed, produce an 'extra structure', attached to the seed; an ELAIOSOME or fat / oil body. This elaiosome lures or attracts ants to the seed. Wood anemone and cow-wheat (Melampyrum pratense) seeds have an elaiosome. [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="512"] cow wheat ; thanks to Kristian Peters -- Fabelfroh 09:39, 3 October 2006 (UTC), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons[/caption] Ants need some fat, and fat-rich food is hard to come by in the woodland setting. The ant carries off the seed to the colony, where the fat body is eaten (often by the ant larvae). The seed is then left and can later germinate. This interaction between plant and ant is termed MYRMECOCHORY. It is a form of mutualism, as there are benefits to this arrangement for both ‘partners’. The seeds of the plant are ‘protected’ from seed predation by birds and rodents. The seed is dispersed from the parent plant, ants bearing a seed for some 70 metres have been recorded. The seed is then (often) deposited in a nutrient rich microhabitat. The ant gains a ‘tailor made’ food material rich in fat, an energy rich material. In some areas, such as Australia, the seed may be protected from fire as it is buried at some depth. Myrmecochory is seen in many species in north eastern America, but also Europe, Australia and Africa. wood ants https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVGcl4Om-C8&t=40s
Out for a walk after the various festivities? Perhaps you might be able to help the People’s Trust for Endangered Species by undertaking a hedgerow survey. Across the UK there are many, many hedgerows. Hedgerows can Provide shelter, homes, perches for a variety of animals, Food for mammals, birds and invertebrates in the form of flowers, berries and nuts. Harbour insects that act as important pollinators of wild flowers and crops. Help to reduce flooding and soil erosion, Help mitigate air and water pollution levels Store carbon Act as corridors along which animals, such as hedgehogs and dormice can travel across the countryside. The Trust is looking for volunteers to fill in a survey form and record features of their chosen hedge, such as the height, width, structure and which tree species are present. The results will help the trust to build a picture of the health of our hedgerows and how they are changing over time. To find out more and to take part in the Great British Hedgerow Survey, visit the PTES website for more information : https://hedgerowsurvey.ptes.org/about-our-hedge-surveys
Woodlands Web Notes : 30
Willow bark and the covid virus. The Covid pandemic created great strains on health and business services, and the virus continues to impact society in many ways. It is not surprising that there is an ongoing search for anti-viral agents. Finnish scientists have found that willow bark may have a role to play. Willow bark has been used as a natural medicinal product over the centuries as an effective agent to treat pain and inflammation. The anti-inflammatory properties of the bark are generally ascribed to salicin, which was to lead to the development of acetylsalicylic acid, that is aspirin. The Finnish scientists ground up the willow bark in hot water and then sieved it to create an ‘extract’. This solution was then added to a number of cell cultures that were exposed to different viruses (enteroviruses, a seasonal coronavirus and SARS CoV2). They then monitored the viral activity, cell infection and viral replication The extract had an effect on all of the viruses. In some cases, the extract affected the envelope of the virus (a structure surrounding the viral genetic material) so the viruses essentially broke down, whereas others were prevented from releasing their genetic material and reproducing. Specifically, though the Covid-19 virus could enter cells when treated with the extract, it could not reproduce once inside. The research team analysed the extract’s chemical composition and tested some known constituents of bark but concluded the success of the extract probably resulted from the interactions of different biologically active compounds. Compounds in the extract included many complex chemicals (for example, hydroxycinnamic acids, salicylates, flavonoids, flavan-3-ols, and proanthocyanidins (polyphenols). Further work will focus on the role / interactions of these various compounds. The Hazel Dormouse in peril. The numbers of the hazel dormouse have fallen dramatically since the turn of the century. The dormouse has disappeared from Staffordshire, Northumberland and Herefordshire in the last few years. This loss is attributed to The destruction / fragmentation of their habitats Poor management of woodlands and hedgerows, leading to a loss of diversity / niches Rising deer numbers, feeding on saplings and shrubs Extreme weather patterns may also play a part Captive-bred dormice have been re-introduced to some 25 sites in 13 counties across the country, sadly nine of these reintroductions were not successful. Dormouse bridges have been created to enable the animals to move between areas dissected by major roads (such as the M1), others are planned. The dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) is a nocturnal animal and lives mainly in deciduous woodland, it feeds among the branches of trees and shrubs. the dormouse rarely descends to the ground. It feeds on a wide variety of 'foods' ; flowers (nectar and pollen), fruits (berries and nuts), certain buds and leaves and some insects, such as aphids and caterpillars. The hazel dormouse is regarded as a ‘flagship species’, that is to say, if the dormice are thriving then it is likely that other species are too from butterflies to birds such as the nightingale. Dormice are currently assessed as ‘Vulnerable’ to extinction in Britain under IUCN Red List criteria, but recent studies suggest a classification of ‘Endangered’ might be more appropriate. Certainly, their future is uncertain. Detailed information on the hazel dormouse is available at PTES (note this link opens a PDF). Their report details the state of hazel dormice in 2023. zsaqwa https://youtu.be/4u-yMkXOuTY Changes in the Boreal Forests. Boreal forests encircle the northern reaches of the Earth, lying just below the treeless under of the Arctic. These forest cover large areas of Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia. These forests contain billions of trees, most are conifers but birch, poplar and aspen may also be found. The trees (and soils) contribute significantly to the cycling of carbon in nature, absorbing carbon dioxide in photosynthesis. They are also home to many species of migratory birds, plus predator species such as lynx and brown bears, and wandering herds of moose. Due to the remoteness of these forests, they have remained (until relatively recently) unaffected by human impact. Now these forests are warming at a rate above the global average. This has a number of effects: In the southern parts of the boreal forest. Conditions are becoming too warm for cold adapted trees; their growth is slowed and they may die. With the warming comes increased dryness, which leads to water stress and increased risk of insect attack / infestation. The dryness also means that forest fires are more likely and occur with increased ferocity. This year, the fires in Canada have been particularly extensive and damaging. Some 18.5M hectares went up in flames. The plumes of smoke spread far and wide. [caption id="attachment_40597" align="aligncenter" width="675"] Canadian forest fire[/caption] Scientists are now using satellites to track changes in the extent of the boreal forests. If trees are being lost on the southern edge of these forest, then it might be expected that the northern limit for tree growth might change. Indeed, there is some evidence for this in Alaska where young Spruce are now growing some 25 miles beyond the previous tree line, moving into the ‘treeless tundra’. It may be the loss on the southern edge is compensated by extension of the most northern parts of the boreal forest, but it is not clear whether tree can ‘move’ at the rate of climate change.