Madagascar’s unique history has created unique restoration challenges

Leighton Reid describes new research linking slow forest recovery to the ancient and protracted isolation that has made Madagascar a hotspot of global endemism – plus an example of working with local farmers to overcome these challenges and restore native rain forest.

Madagascar is a special place with a special history. Separated by ocean from Africa and India for the last 88 million years, this isolated tropical island has fostered the evolution of plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. Lemurs, couas, and the plant family Sarcolaenaceae are all examples of organisms that evolved only in Madagascar. Collectively, such endemic species make up more than 80% of all plants and animals there.

Crested coua (Coua cristata), one of nine species in the genus Coua – all of which are found only in Madagascar. Photo credit: Olaf Oliveiero Riemer (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Madagascar also has special problems. Almost half of the island’s forest has been cleared for agriculture since 1953, and remaining forests are at imminent risk. One recent study projected that if deforestation rates do not diminish soon, 93% of eastern Malagasy rain forest could be gone by 2070.

The combination of a large proportion of endemic species and a high degree of habitat loss makes Madagascar a biodiversity hotspot. Some people call Madagascar one of the hottest hotspots because its endemism and habitat loss are so extreme.

This week, a new study led by UC Berkeley PhD student Kat Culbertson identified another special problem in Madagascar: following disturbance, Malagasy forests recovery very slowly. Compared to other tropical forests around the world, Malagasy rain forests recover only about a quarter (26%) as much biomass in their first 20 years of recovery. Dry forests in Madagascar also recover more slowly, recovering just 35% as much biomass as American tropical dry forests over the same time period.

Slow biomass recovery following disturbance in Madagascar (dark blue) compared to Central and South America (Neotropics), Africa (Afrotropics), and Asia (Asiatic tropics). Source: Katherine Culbertson et al. (2022) Biotropica.

Why do Malagasy forests recover more slowly than forests in other regions? The answer may be related to Madagascar’s unusual evolutionary history. Culbertson and her co-authors developed four hypotheses and reviewed an array of scientific literature to evaluate support for each one.

Four ways that Madagascar’s unique history could lead to slow forest recovery

1. Native Malagasy forests lack resilience to shifting nutrient and fire regimes from current farming practices. Many rural people across Madagascar practice tavy, a farming method that involves clearing forest, burning it, and then growing rice – a staple crop. After one or a few years of growing rice, the land is allowed to recuperate for several years before it is cultivated again. In other tropical forest locations, such as southern Mexico where humans have farmed for thousands of years, similar practices can coexist with native forests, but Malagasy forests seem to have little resilience to tavy, as least at the intensity with which it is practiced today. For example, in eastern Madagascar, a 3-5 year tavy cycle can cause a native forest to transition to permanent herbaceous vegetation in just 20-40 years. The soil nutrient stocks in that fallow field may be as little as 1-6.5% of soil nutrients stocks in intact forest.

2. Madagascar is an island, and islands tend to have more problems with invasive species. Goats in the Galapagos, brown tree snakes in Guam, acacia in Hawaii, and rats everywhere – these are just some of the ways that island ecosystems have been overwhelmed and transformed by invasive species. Madagascar is no exception. Rain forest regeneration at Ranomafana is stalled by invasive guava, eucalyptus, and rose apple, while dry forest regeneration at Berenty is inhibited by a vine – Cissus quadrangularis. People in Madagascar have many more anecdotes about problems with invasive species like silver oak and Melaleuca quiquenervia, although the extent and impact of these invaders on forest recovery have not yet been studied.

3. Old, weathered soils have favored the evolution of slow-growing native plants. Madagascar is not only an island, it is a very old island, and as such its soils have been weathered and depleted of important nutrients like phosphorus. It’s hard to separate the effect of inherently low nutrient availability due to being an old island from the effect of human-induced nutrient scarcity through tavy, but one comparison of phosphorus content in rice stalks showed that phosphorus content was 10× lower in Madagascar compared to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. If native trees have evolved to grow more slowly in Madagascar because of low nutrient availability, then on average exotic tree species should grow faster than native Malagasy ones in the same gardens. This has been shown in a few cases, but a more compelling analysis would need more species.

4. Finally, Malagasy forests have dysfunctional seed dispersal. One way in which Madagascar is different from other tropical areas is that by and large its trees have evolved to have their fruits dispersed by lemurs. Unfortunately, many of the lemurs that could disperse Malagasy tree fruits are either extinct or endangered – in many cases due to a combination of hunting and habitat loss. Moreover, the lemurs that remain are reluctant to venture outside of forest fragments (perhaps with good reason) and so they are unable to disperse seeds to regenerating farmlands that most need them.

Black and white ruffed lemur (Varecia variegata) – a critically endangered seed disperser in eastern Madagascar. Photo credit: Tim Treuer.

In essence, the ancient and protracted isolation that has made Madagascar so unique has also made it uniquely vulnerable to contemporary changes like deforestation, fire, and agriculture. The result is an unfortunate combination: Madagascar not only has some of the highest deforestation rates, it is also one of the places least ecologically equipped to rebound from those disturbances.

A mosaic of mature tropical dry forest and forest restoration at Berenty in southern Madagascar. Photo credit: Ariadna Mondragon Botero.

The way forward – working with local people

Despite these challenges, Madagascar has committed to restoring four million hectares of lost habitat by 2030, an area nearly 7% the total national territory. This is a tall order in a country where technical difficulties are high and financial resources are often low, but it can be done, and the way forward, undoubtedly, is to work with local people.

One group that exemplifies bottom-up restoration is GreenAgain, a non-profit restoring native rain forest and supporting rural livelihoods in eastern Madagascar. GreenAgain is led and staffed by farmer-practitioners whose neighbors, family, and friends contract with GreenAgain to design, plant, and monitor diverse native forests on their lands. Last year, GreenAgain staff planted 20,000 trees across central eastern Madagascar, each one carried by hand, on foot, from one of eight regional tree nurseries. The rural farmers at GreenAgain collect rigorous data on tree survival and growth and collaborate with scientists to analyze and share the results of their tree planting experiments.

For example, one of the earliest experiments at GreenAgain was an assay of tree planting strategies intended to improve native tree seedling survival during plantings that occur in the dry season. Trees planted during the dry season typically have high mortality, sometimes in excess of 40%. One of the strategies that local farmers recommended to improve survival was to erect small teepees over each seedling using the leaves of a common fern, Dicranopteris linearis. These structures are temporary – they eventually dry out and blow away – but GreenAgain’s experiment showed that they reduced transplant shock (i.e., mortality in the first few weeks) by 75% compared to seedlings that were left to bake in the hot sun. In contrast, many of the other treatments had no discernable effect.

To analyze and publish these findings, GreenAgain partnered with an award-winning undergraduate researcher, Chris Logan, in my lab at Virginia Tech, who led a peer-reviewed paper that is now available at Restoration Ecology.

Leaf tent made with a ubiquitous fern, Dicranopteris linearis, placed over a native tree seedling. Photo credit: Catherine Hill.

Could technological solutions like hydrogels or irrigation systems produce greater improvements in dry season tree survival? Yes – they probably could for a certain price, but homegrown solutions like fern leaf shade tents are free and easily accessible to any person doing restoration across eastern Madagascar. They are also more likely to be used because they were developed by local people.

This study also showed that some native tree species are much better at coping with dry season stress than other species, so another possible solution for dry season plantings could be to plant only the tough survivors. Once those trees survive and begin to produce shade, fern leaf tents may not even be needed anymore to help more sensitive native species survive and grow.

To read more about ongoing restoration and ecological research in Madagascar, read our new review of how Madagascar’s evolutionary history limits forest recovery and our new open-access paper about strategies for dry season plantings in eastern Madagascar.

If you are in a position to support the work of local farmers restoring rain forests in eastern Madagascar, consider donating to GreenAgain at their website, greenagainmadagascar.org.

Identifying regional and restoration species pools for the Ozark Highlands

Andrew Kaul is a Restoration Ecology Post-doc in the Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development working with Matthew Albrecht at the Missouri Botanical Garden, and Michael Barash is a junior Biology major at Washington University in St. Louis. Here they describe Michael’s undergraduate research on commercial native seed availability for woodland restoration.

One of the largest barriers to restoration of degraded terrestrial habitats is availability of seed for use in reintroduction of desirable native plant species. Over the past few decades, the industry of native plant seed production has grown rapidly, but most native species in the US (and globally) are still not commercially available, and there can be strong biases in which types of species tend to be selected by seed producers.

In ecological parlance, a “species pool” represents all of the species which can colonize and occupy a certain region. Not all of the species in a regional species pool are available commercially, which is how many restoration practitioners acquire seeds, so the subset of species pool that contains only the species that are commercially available in a given region is sometimes called the “restoration species pool”.

For most ecosystems around the world, it is not well documented what proportion of the species pool is commercially available, and why these species have been selected for commercial trade. The few studies that have been conducted on commercial seed availability for restoration have found consistently that herbaceous (rather than woody) and rare species (rather than common ones) are less likely to be available, and there are strong taxonomic biases in which plant families are more represented. In the US, these studies have focused on open-canopy habitats with few trees, such as grasslands, rather than on more closed-canopy systems like woodlands and forests.

An open rocky glade (left), and a glade to woodland transition (middle), a woodland understory (right; Shaw Nature Reserve, Gray summit MO).

To address this information gap, we assessed the capacity of the native seed industry to support ecological restoration across terrestrial habitats in the Ozark region of the midcontinent USA. The use of seed additions to accelerate recovery of plant diversity in Ozark woodlands and forests is not well studied, and little information is available on how to best select species for reintroduction from seed. The specific goals of this project were to:

1) Identify the species pool of native herbaceous (non-woody) vascular plants appropriate for restoration of glades, woodlands, and forests in the Ozark Highlands;

2) Define the restoration species pool by identifying which of these species are commercially available;

3) Quantify biases in this restoration species pool with respect to growth form, rarity, habitat affinity, and a few important functional traits;

4) Identify candidate species which are not available from seed vendors, but should be a priority for seed production due to their importance for Ozark habitats.

The spatial scope of this study is the Ozark Highlands, level III ecoregion 39, which covers all of Southern Missouri, as well as parts of Northern Arkansas, and NE Oklahoma.

We began this project by developing a targeted species list of 1,178 herbaceous species native to upland habitats in the Ozark region, based on existing datasets from the Ecological Checklist of the Missouri Flora, the Flora of Missouri, and the Biota of North America Program (BONAP).

We predicted there would be selection, implicit or explicitly, by seed producers for species based on their growth form, conservatism score wetness rating, rarity, and functional traits. Each species’ physiognomy (growth form), conservatism score (that is, sensitivity to disturbance), and wetness ratings (a type of habitat affinity) were included in the Missouri Checklist. For each species in our pool, we compiled data on two measures of rarity including a qualitative measure –  the official Missouri State conservation ranking, and a quantitative measure – the range size of the species in the US, as measured by the number counties in the nation where there have been recorded occurrences in the BONAP database. We compiled trait data on height of adult plants, and bloom timing and duration from species descriptions in the Flora of Missouri. For each grass species, we compiled data on photosynthetic pathway from published literature.

We made predictions that species with certain growth strategies, traits, range sizes, and habitat preferences would be under- or over-represented in the pool of species produced by seed vendors. We predicted that compared to other growth forms, perennial forbs would be over-represented in the restoration species pool because the aesthetic value of restoration projects is often a high priority, and perennial forbs with their big flowers, are “showier” and will return year after year. Similarly, taller species, and those with a longer bloom period may be selected preferentially because their blooms are more noticeable. We expected that species which have a smaller range or are not abundant in sites where they do occur are less likely to be in demand by restoration practitioners, so are less likely to be commercially available. Based on this pattern we expected species with a lower conservatism score, larger range size, and higher conservation rank (less concern for conservation) to be more commonly produced by seed vendors.

We predicted that species with a larger range such as pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida; map on the left), would be more likely to be available from at least one producer than species with a smaller range, such as the related yellow coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa; right). Maps are from BONAP, and light green areas denote counties where the species has been reported.

The cottage seed industry for prairie plants has grown especially rapidly in recent years, so we expected that species which are generally found in more open habitats like glades, prairies, and savannas, would more likely to have been selected by at least one producer than the species which occur mostly in shady habitats like woodlands and forests. Similarly, since open habitats tend to have drier soils than shaded ones, we predicted there may be a bias toward species with a higher (drier) wetness rating. Many grass species that grow in open habitats have evolved a more efficient way of conducting photosynthesis under hot sunny conditions. There are fewer of these “warm-season” grasses than “cool-season” ones, but we predict that proportionally more warm-season grasses will be commercially available, because they are common in the prairie seed market.

Inflorescences of big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) can be seen at this glade to woodland transition at Victoria Glades Conservation Area in Hillsboro, MO. These warm-season grasses are dominant in many prairies and common in glades, but generally do not occur under the canopy of wooded areas.

In order to test these predictions, we needed to compile information on which species in our pool are available from seed vendors. We identified ten seed vendors that are likely potential sources of seed materials for species native to the Ozark Highlands. These include five seed vendors within Missouri, four large regional seed vendors located in Iowa, Minnesota, and Kentucky, and one very large seed vendor that produces seed for regions all across all the US. We were able to get information on which species each vendor produces from their website, or if they did not have a website, then through personal communication. Many vendors sell a combination of seeds and potted plants, with most species only being available in one form or the other. For this study, we were only interested in seed products because restoration of herbaceous communities through seed additions is the most common and affordable approach.

Based on preliminary analyses, we found that 501 (43%) species were commercially available from at least one vendor. We found the strongest trends supporting the prediction that species differ in their likelihood of commercial availability based on physiognomy or “growth form”. Perennial species were twice as likely to be available as shorter-lived annual or biennial species, and as predicted, forbs were better represented in seed vendor catalogues than grasses or sedges.

We predicted that more common species would be better represented in the restoration species pool and our results somewhat support this prediction. Conservatism scores are assigned to species by expert botanists in each region, so they reflect how rare and how disturbance tolerant species are within local areas. In the US, these scores are often assigned at the state level. In order to avoid over-interpreting these designations, we binned scores into three groups including ruderal (0-3), matrix (4-6), and conservative (7-10) for use in our analysis. We found that “matrix” species with middling conservatism scores were more likely to be available than conservative or ruderal species. This may be because ruderal species can be somewhat weedy and may be expected to recruit into restored areas as volunteers. And on the other hand, highly conservative species may be difficult to grow for seed production, or have a small range, and thus limited restoration potential or demand. The state of Missouri has designations for the conservation concern of all native species. We found that species classified as “vulnerable” (S3), “imperiled” (S2), or “critically imperiled” (S1) were less likely to be available from seed vendors, as species classified as “secure” (S5) or “apparently secure” (S4). And finally, as predicted, we found that species with larger ranges are more likely to be commercially available.

We expected species which mostly occur in open habitats with little tree cover to be more likely to be commercially available. We classified each species as belonging to one of three habitat affinity groups, being an open habitat specialist, closed habit specialist, or a generalist. We found no bias in species availability based on habitat affinity or based on the wetness rating for Missouri. Based on the prediction that the prairie-focused seed market would promote availability of warm-season grasses, we thought they would have greater proportional representation in the seed market, but we also did not find evidence for that prediction. Warm and cool season grasses were equally likely to be available, with about a third of all species belonging to each group being available.

While we did not find that species with affinity to open habitats were more likely available from at least one producer than species from closed habitats, we did notice that the species which were sold by the most producers tended to be “prairie species” like butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa; left), which was available from 9 of the 10 vendors we surveyed, or stiff goldenerod (Solidago rigida; right), which was available from 8 vendors.

Traits of species may also contribute to seed vendors’ interest in propagating them. We found evidence that within perennial wildflowers (forbs), species with a taller maximum height are more likely to be available. We also predicted that species with a longer potential bloom period would be better represented in the seed market, but surprisingly our data shows a negative relationship, where species that can bloom for many months are less represented in the restoration species pool. This pattern may be driven by differences between functional groups or plant families and deserves further investigation.

The final goal of this project was to identify candidate species to recommend to seed producers as valuable for restoration potential. We identified such species based on the highly detailed descriptions provided in a keystone reference for this region, Paul Nelson’s The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri (2005). This book describes the geologic, climatic, and natural features of natural community types in Missouri. We only considered habitats within the broad designations of forests, woodlands, savannas, prairies, and glades, and we narrowed our focus to only habitat types that occur within the Ozark Ecoregion. For each of these 37 Ozark habitats, this reference provides lists of plant species that are “dominant”, “characteristic”, or “restricted” to that habitat. We propose that a good starting place in assessing the capacity of the native seed industry to support ecological restoration across terrestrial habitats in the Ozark region is to examine whether all of the “dominant” plant species in habitats within the Ozarks are available from vendors. Of the 120 species identified by Nelson as “dominant” in Ozark habitats, 80 of them (66%) were commercially available. This is encouraging, since it is higher than the overall availability rate of 43%, however there are still 40 species which would be difficult for restoration practitioners to acquire without hand collecting from wild populations. This highlights how biases in the restoration species pool could potentially make assembling a high-quality seed mix more difficult, if the species for sale represent those which are easiest to cultivate, rather than being the ones which have the most biological significance to restoration.

Birdfoot violet (Viola pedata) is classified as a dominant species for dry sandstone woodlands and is common on dolomite glades. Fortunately, we found it is commercially available from two vendors. Two other violets, wood violet (Viola palmata), and arrowleaf violet (Viola sagittata) are dominant in other Ozark habitats, but are not available from any of the vendors we surveyed.

Here, we are only scratching the surface in terms of identifying ways in which the seed production industry may inadvertently be biasing the restoration species pool and consequently the diversity and composition of restored plant communities. In the future we recommend continued collaboration between seed producers, restoration practitioners, and conservation scientists, to identify the limitations of available seed stocks and better align supply and demand for native seeds. Most seed vendors do not label products at taxonomic designations below the species level. However, conservation goals are sometimes identified for subspecies or varieties. The extent to which these taxa are commercially available is difficult to assess. Additionally, many restoration projects call for seed from a local provenance, but obtaining information on ecotypes of native seed lots from vendors can be difficult. While nearly 40% of our species pool for restoration projects in the Ozark Highlands are commercially available, the proportion of those species that are available from an Ozark ecotype is likely much lower.

We are currently preparing this project for publication. If you are interested in learning more, or have any questions, feel free to email Andrew (akaul@mobot.org).

Ecological restoration operations in the French Mediterranean coastal environment to promote dusky grouper population recovery

By Gilles Lecaillon, Etienne Abadie, and Charlotte Soler (founder and CEO, Project Manager, and intern at Ecocean, Ltd.). Ecocean is a French company providing ecological restoration and engineering ideas and services since 2003, including habitat creation for juvenile fish in near-coastal marine ecosystems, and floating islands of vegetation for multiple ecosystem services in fresh water lakes, in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere.

Near-coastal marine ecosystems and their biodiversity are under great pressure from human activities. Ecosystem processes and functionality can be impacted and disrupted by our infrastructures or activities, resulting in losses of ecosystem health and delivery of ecosystem services. Over the past few decades, conservation, revised management, and ecological restoration activities have been designed and implemented with the aim to reduce and compensate for the impacts we have on marine ecosystems. By using technological innovation, ecological engineering, and ecological restoration approaches, we manage to enhance and support different ecological processes, resulting for example in diversification of food chains or complexification of habitats in the targeted aquatic ecosystems. As compared to some terrestrial ecosystems, the science and practice of ecological restoration in marine environments, and of its integration within long term social-economical projects, are still in their infancy. Ecocean, Ltd. and other companies and NGOs are pushing the envelope and the marine portion of the budding restoration sector continues to grow and gain experience.

Ecocean was launched in 2003 by two French marine biologists. Among the approaches developed, the Biohut® was one of the first artificial habitats to be designed anywhere to restore fish nursery functions. This metallic structure, consisting in a central module filled with a natural substrate (oyster shells) and two protective modules, provides food resources and shelter for juvenile fish, wherever essential nursery functions have been impacted by human infrastructures and activities. The Biohut structure provides a simple but efficient technological solution in order to mimic and provide ecological functions of nurseries in as many types of aquatic ecosystems as possible.

Biohut habitats installed on a dock wall In Marseille (France) to add habitat complexity and protect juvenile fish from predators. ©Rémy Dubas / Ecocean

After several successive research projects carried out along the French Mediterranean shoreline, led with the support of scientific partners from the University of Perpignan and Ifremer (the French National Institute for Ocean Science), the ecological value of the Biohut habitat for juvenile fish in port areas was validated (Bouchoucha et al. 2016, Mercader et al. 2017a, 2017b). Various adaptations for different contexts have since then been implemented as ecological restoration tools in order to enhance survival rate and food chain recovery for many species of coastal fish and invertebrates. Today, 40 ports and marinas are equipped with Biohuts to help restore and speed the recovery of nursery functions for juvenile fish, and over 4500 Biohut modules have been installed worldwide in ports, marinas, offshore substations, canals, floating photovoltaic platforms, outfalls at sea, etc. Monitoring is underway at least twice a year in more than 30 different locations.

Ongoing monitoring of the Biohut habitats, performed by scientific divers in order to assess the species colonizing the Biohut and their abundance, have allowed us to observe more than 100 different species of fish and more than 200 different species of invertebrates (crustaceans, mollusks, etc.) using these structures.

As mentioned above, it is critical to closely link ecological restoration and engineering interventions with awareness raising and education for local people and institutions, in order to involve local stakeholders and communities from the beginning of a project. Thus, the impact of restoration actions is not only at the scale of the habitat, but also reaches the social level, with chances of behavior changes that can enhance the gains and recovery made both by the target ecosystem,  the local human communities,  and human society as a whole.

Additionally, by involving local communities, especially young people, with dedicated activities, Ecocean aims to reach out and bring in these future stakeholders, and tries to influence them to commit themselves to aiding in the protection and restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems. Since 2017, more than 5000 children have been involved in such activities, helping them to reach a good level of implication and understanding of the ecosystems they live near and benefit from.

Awareness raising activities with children in Agde (France) exploring the organisms settled inside the substrate of a Biohut. © Sabrina Palmieri / Ecocean

Notes on cultural and natural history

The dusky grouper (Epinephelus marginatus) is an emblematic species throughout the Mediterranean Sea, where it lives near to rocky shorelines and in Posidonia seagrass meadows. Known to be an apex predator, it has a strong ecological role in these ecosystems.  Mature individuals can measure up to 1 m in length and have major cultural heritage value, since they are easy and fun to observe. However, because of their docile behavior towards people and the culinary quality of their flesh, groupers have been heavily impacted by fishing and spearfishing for a long time. Groupers are protogynous (female primary sex) hermaphroditic species with the first sexual maturation, as a female, between 2 and 5 years of age, followed by a sex reversal at approximately nine years of age (Faillettaz et al., 2018; Pollard & Francour, 2018). As a result of slow growth, long longevity, and late maturing, as well as a high site fidelity to shallow coastal waters, grouper populations are particularly sensitive to anthropogenic actions such as fishing (Hackradt et al., 2014).

In addition to the fishing pressure, the dusky grouper is subject to a drastic decline in the northwestern Mediterranean due to its unsuccessful recruitment (Bodilis et al., 2003) due to low reproductive success and low survival rate of post-larvae before their coastal settlement.

Adult male dusky grouper (1 m long) in its natural habitat. © Rémy Dubas / Ecocean

Since 2004, the dusky grouper has been classified as Endangered by the IUCN. It benefits from a fishing moratorium since 1993 that prohibits fishing or spearfishing. Recently, an increase in new, small (under 40 cm) dusky grouper individuals was observed along the French Mediterranean coast, but more help is needed to achieve real recovery.

Sexual activity and reproduction in this species have only been rarely observed by divers along the French Mediterranean coast and near Corsica. However, However, it is important to say that in their natural habitat, small juvenile dusky groupers are difficult to observe as they are cryptic and camouflage themselves very effectively.

Happily, we have recorded several juvenile dusky groupers sheltering in Biohut habitats deployed by Ecocean in Mediterranean ports and marinas. Since the first observations of four dusky groupers between 2013 and 2015 on artificial micro-habitats created by Ecocean (Mercader et al., 2017), more recently 19 new individuals have been sighted across 11 sites along the French Mediterranean coastline between 2016 and 2021. These dusky groupers measured between 4.5 and 15 cm. The increase of the observation of juveniles of this species in artificial habitats can be seen as a good sign for the populations.

Frontal view of a ~6 cm (3 months old) juvenile dusky grouper taking shelter in a Biohut. © Rémy Dubas / Ecocean

Other approaches being tried

In parallel, between 2013 and 2021, across 8 different sites along the Mediterranean French coast, 27 dusky grouper individuals were captured by a system called C.A.R.E (Collect by Artificial Reef Eco-friendly) light traps developed by Ecocean, during four scientific programs conducted by Ecocean, Villefranche’s Oceanographic Laboratory, Paul Ricard Oceanographic Institute, and a European Life + SUBLIMO project. The monitoring of presence/absence, and capture and examination of these juvenile groupers, even if in small numbers, helps to assess the effective reproduction of the species in the northern Mediterranean.

Juvenile dusky grouper (25 mm) after its capture with a light trap. © Isabelle Simonet / Ecocean

The other ecological restoration process developed by Ecocean consists in capturing fish post larvae with light traps, rearing the juveniles until they reach a safe size (7-10 cm) when they can be reintroduced to natural habitats. This process, called BioRestore, aims to enhance the survival rate of post-larvae juvenile fish, because they are captured at a life stage where their mortality rate is still very high, and this rate is reduced to less than 10% (due to disease and other causes) for the period of several months while they are kept in captivity.

BioRestore is already being implemented and has been refined since 2016 both in Marseille (in the CasCioMar project) and in Toulon (Orrea project) in order to capture and restock fish with enhanced survival rates.

Juvenile dusky grouper (12 cm long and- ~6 months old) being released in natural habitat after a few months of rearing. © Rémy Dubas / Ecocean

In order not to impact the structure of the communities of fish to which we are putting back rare and keystone species in the wild, all species are released in the same proportions and diversity as captured, so groupers are released 1-2 at a time, as compared to releases of hundreds of individuals from other, smaller species such as seabreams (Diplodus spp.), mullets (Mugilidae), and others.

Different species of coastal fish being released in the natural habitat after rearing from larvae. © Rémy Dubas / Ecocean

Therefore, despite a low reproductive potential on northwestern Mediterranean coasts, and more particularly in France, post-larval dusky grouper individuals have been observed to benefit from different restoration projects along the French Mediterranean shoreline.

In the natural environment, settled juveniles are difficult to encounter because there is a high larval mortality rate  and because newly settled juveniles are difficult to observe as they are quite cryptic.

Similar projects have been implemented by Ecocean divers in other locations, such as in the Marchica Lagoon in Morocco, and there we have also observed juvenile groupers from different species (Epinephelus marginatus and Mycteroperca rubra, among others) settling in the Biohut nursery habitats (Selfati et al. 2018). In addition to the ecological aspect of this implementation, local communities, local university students and professors, and fishers were all involved in the project, in order to have a solid local footprint on both society and environment.

In addition to that, Biohut habitats have been implemented in the French Caribbean islands of Saint Martin and Guadeloupe, and juveniles of other grouper species there have also been observed using Biohut® as their adopted habitat.

The observation of juvenile groupers in various ecosystems shows the potential of the tools described here for fish species with strong ecological value and cultural heritage in many parts of the world. They can provides juvenile with suitable growing conditions where nursery habitat functions have been impacted or the habitat completely destroyed.  Additionally, they can be very effective and compelling for communication and outreach to local communities regarding the importance of conservation, management, and where needed, reintroduction and reinforcement of natural populations of emblematic, apex predator fish such as the dusky grouper and many others. Ecocean and all its staff are committed to pushing this important work further.

References:

Bodilis, P., Ganteaume, A., & Francour, P. 2003. Presence of 1 year-old dusky groupers along the French Mediterranean coast. J. Fish Biology 62:242–246.

Bouchoucha, M. et al. 2016. Potential use of marinas as nursery grounds by rocky fishes: insights from four Diplodus species in the Mediterranean. Marine Ecology Progress Series 547:193-209.

Faillettaz, R., et al.  2018. First records of dusky grouper Epinephelus marginatus settlement-stage larvae in the Ligurian Sea. Journal of Oceanography, Research and Data 10:1–6.

Hackradt, C. W., et al.  2014. Response of rocky reef top predators (Serranidae: Epinephelinae) in and around marine protected areas in the Western Mediterranean Sea. PLoS ONE 9(6).              

Mercader, M., et al. 2017a. Small artificial habitats to enhance the nursery function for juvenile fish in a large commercial port of the Mediterranean. Ecological Engineering 105: 78-86.

Mercader, M., et al.  2017b. Observation of juvenile dusky groupers (Epinephelus marginatus) in artificial habitats of North-Western Mediterranean harbors. Marine Biodiversity 47:371–372.

Pollard, D.A & Francour, P. 2018. Mycteroperca rubra. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018:  e.T14054A42691814.

Selfati M., et al. 2018. Promoting restoration of fish communities using artificial habitats in coastal marinas. Biological Conservation 219:89-9.

Major in Ecological Restoration at Virginia Tech

By Leighton Reid, Assistant Professor of Ecological Restoration in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech.

Now is a great time to start a career in environmental restoration. Worldwide, society has degraded an area of land larger than South America with disastrous outcomes for biodiversity, climate, and human wellbeing. More than a million species face extinction, and ongoing deforestation is second only to fossil fuel emissions in driving global climate change.

Ecological restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of damaged ecosystems, and this profession is at the heart of a worldwide movement to solve the biggest challenges of the 21st Century. During the past few years, dozens of countries, including the US, have pledged to restore an area of the Earth’s surface bigger than the state of Alaska. There are now three different initiatives to plant a trillion trees, and the United Nations recently launched the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration to amplify the critical role that restoration must play in preventing climate change and species extinctions right now.

Starting in December 2021, Virginia Tech offers a major in Ecological Restoration through the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. Students who graduate with a BS in Ecological Restoration will be trained broadly in environmental science, ecology, botany, soil science, and human dimensions (download the course checklist). They will learn about ecological restoration projects happening in Virginia and around the world, and they will get hands-on experience designing restoration plans for degraded sites.

Undergraduates in Plant Materials for Environmental Restoration (ENSC 3644) plant an oak tree along Holtan Branch, a tributary of Stroubles Creek on the Virginia Tech campus. Photo: JL Reid.

Virginia Tech has deep roots in environmental restoration and continues to be in the vanguard. For decades Virginia Tech faculty have been research leaders in restoration monitoring, mine reclamation, river restoration, and endangered species recovery. Today faculty from across campus specialize in many more areas related to ecological restoration, including tropical forest restoration, grassland restoration, plant propagation, fire ecology, agroecology, environmental history, natural resource economics, and philosophy. Several faculty members and students have recently formed a Restoration Ecology Working Group to address the interdisciplinary nature of environmental problems.

A tropical forest restoration site in northwestern Ecuador. An undergraduate researcher in summer 2022 will measure the survival of native tree seedlings planted in this former cattle pasture.

Virginia Tech was the first university in the United States to formally align its Ecological Restoration curriculum with the Society for Ecological Restoration, the largest professional organization of ecological restoration professionals worldwide. This alignment means that students graduating with a degree in Ecological Restoration will have completed the knowledge requirements to apply for professional recognition as in the Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner in Training (CERPIT) program. Professional certification clearly communicates to employers that graduates of this program are recognized within the profession as being knowledgeable in ecological restoration and committed to a high standard of practice.

A Virginia Tech research intern and staff of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation search for a federally threatened orchid in a woodland restoration site in the Shenandoah Valley. Photo: JL Reid.

Undergraduate and graduate students at Virginia Tech can also get involved in restoration through a new student organization. The Society for Ecological Restoration Student Association at Virginia Tech (SER-VT) is student-led and aims to connect students with restoration projects and provide networking opportunities. For example, students who join SER-VT are eligible to apply for free membership in the Society for Ecological Restoration. Students can also get involved with the Virginia Tech Environmental Coalition, a student-run organization that advocates for a sustainable future and organizes events, including The Big Plant, an annual event to improve habitat and water quality in a local creek by planting native trees.

The Environmental Coalition is a student-led organization that organizes native tree planting events and other sustainability efforts on campus. Photo source: https://gobblerconnect.vt.edu/organization/ec.

Job prospects for ecological restoration professionals are already good and likely to improve given the huge scale of land and water degradation worldwide. As of 2016, the US restoration economy employed >126,000 workers and produced $9.5 billion USD in economic output. In terms of workers, there are more professionals working in ecological restoration than in iron and steel mills (91,000 workers in 2016) but somewhat fewer than in motor vehicle manufacturing (175,000). Many different sectors require restoration to comply with state and federal regulations. As such, ecological restoration professionals are hired by architectural firms, construction companies, state and federal government agencies, environmental consultancies, environmental education organizations, public/private/NGO land management organizations, state highway departments, mining companies, forestry companies, universities, and others.

PhD student Jordan Coscia measures plant community composition in a recently restored native grassland on the northern Virginia Piedmont. Photo: JL Reid.

Virginia Tech’s location in the New River Valley provides access to a wide variety of natural areas and restoration projects. One important site within walking distance of classroom buildings is the StREAM Lab, a restoration experiment designed to test different strategies for improving water quality along 1.3 miles of Stroubles Creek (watch a 7-minute video about StREAM Lab). Restoration courses also visit sites managed by the town of Blacksburg, The Nature Conservancy, the USDA Forest Service, and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to develop hands-on skills in plant identification, community ecology, seed collection, invasive species management, tree planting, and ecological monitoring.

Masters student David Bellangue sets up an experiment focused on improving native wildflower establishment at McCormick Farm near Raphine, Virginia. Photo: JL Reid.

An excellent way for students to get more out of their degree is to participate in a research experience or an internship. By working with a graduate student, a faculty member, or a local land manager, undergraduates develop new skills and perspectives as well as personal relationships with working professionals. Students can also broaden their horizons through a wide variety of study abroad programs.

Undergraduates who participate in research gain new skills (like plant community monitoring) and personal relationships with professionals in the field. Photo: JL Reid.

In a nutshell, the Ecological Restoration Major at Virginia Tech is designed to launch meaningful careers for students who are passionate about the environment and want to move the needle on climate change, biodiversity conservation, and ecosystem services.

To learn more about majoring in Ecological Restoration at Virginia Tech, contact Dr. Leighton Reid (jlreid@vt.edu) or Karen Drake-Whitney (kdrake@vt.edu).

Planting trees recovers 70 years’ worth of dead wood carbon pools in less than two decades

By Estefania P. Fernandez Barrancos, a PhD candidate in Biology at the University of Missouri – St. Louis and a fellow of the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center. Her most recent research paper in Forest Ecology and Management is freely available through March 9th.

When most people walk through a forest the last thing they probably look at is dead vegetation, and unless you are an avid mushroom harvester you probably don’t even notice dead logs. However, dead wood stores an important amount of carbon. An amount important enough that if dead wood disappeared it could promote more changes to our already rapidly changing climate.

Mushrooms on a dead log. Photo: JL Reid.

Dead wood is also a crucial habitat for many organisms such as fungi, insects, and birds. Many insects and fungi use dead wood as a source of food and nutrients, and several species of birds are only able to nest in dead logs.

A Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) exiting its nest inside a standing dead log to go harvest food for its fledglings. Photo: Estefania Fernandez.

Anthropogenic disturbances, such as logging and deforestation, can significantly decrease the amounts of dead wood present on the forest floor, sometimes leading to losses of up to 98% of dead wood. The implications of dead wood loss are potentially warmer temperatures due to the release of carbon contained in dead wood as well as the loss of habitat that is critical to many forest organisms. Tropical ecosystems contain some of the most biodiverse habitats on Earth, yet they are among the ecosystems that suffer the most from anthropogenic disturbance. For example, most forests in the county of Coto Brus in Southern Costa Rica, our study area, were transformed into cattle pasture or coffee plantations in the 1950s-1980s. Today, the landscape consists of a mosaic of cattle pasture, coffee plantations, and small forest remnants.

Deforestation to create farms and cattle pastures has decreased the amount of dead wood in southern Costa Rica. Photo credit: JL Reid.

Forest restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been damaged or destroyed (SER International Standards) and it has a high potential to reverse the problem of dead wood loss through different strategies. In the Tropics, the most common restoration strategies are passive and active restoration. Passive restoration consists of allowing an ecosystem to recover with minimal to no human input.  In contrast, active restoration consists of assisting the ecosystem in its recovery through actions such as tree planting.

Old-growth forest (A) and and two restoration treatments: tree plantations (B) and natural regeneration (C). Old-growth forests are ≥100 years old. Plantations and natural regeneration were 16-17 years old at the time of the study. Photos:  Juan Abel Rosales & Estefania Fernandez.

Recently, I studied the pattern of dead wood re-accumulation through time after disturbance in southern Costa Rica as well as the effectiveness of passive and active restoration at recovering dead wood as it is found in undisturbed forests. To evaluate dead wood accumulation through time, my team and I surveyed dead wood volumes inside 35 forest patches of increasing ages (from 3 to over 100 years old) that were former coffee plantations. We evaluated the effectiveness of active vs. passive restoration at recovering dead wood by surveying dead wood volumes inside 17-year old passive and active restoration plots and inside nearby old-growth forests. Our passive restoration treatment was represented by natural regeneration plots around which fences were established to exclude cattle and where vegetation was allowed to re-establish naturally. Our active restoration treatment was represented by restoration plantations, where seedlings of two native (Terminalia amazonia and Vochysia guatemalensis) and two naturalized (Inga edulis and Erythrina poeppegiana) tree species were planted 17 years ago to facilitate the re-establishment of vegetation. Our reference ecosystem included nearby old-growth forests over 100 years old.

Juan Abel Rosales measures the diameter of dead logs in order to estimate their volume in an old-growth forest in Southern Costa Rica. Photo: Estefania Fernandez.
To measure the diameter of dead, rotting logs, we measured the distance between two tent poles set vertically along the logs’ edges. Photo: Estefania Fernandez.
Jeisson Figueroa Sandí establishes a transect to evaluate dead wood inside a forest fragment. Photo: Estefania Fernandez.

We found that dead wood recovers following a logistic shape through time in our study area: volumes are low initially, increase rapidly, and then plateau. The low volumes of dead wood at the beginning of succession could be explained by the fact that most of the wood remains are typically harvested by local inhabitants after lands are abandoned in our study area. As pioneer trees recolonize abandoned coffee plantations and subsequently die, they produce dead wood. As the forest grows older, there is a mix of short-lived pioneer trees and long-lived trees which contribute to large amounts of dead wood on the forest floor through branchfall and their own deaths.

Dead wood volumes as function of forest age in a chronosequence of secondary forests in southern Costa Rica. Blue dots represent the raw data (i.e. course woody debris, or CWD, volumes per hectare). The red line represents the predicted values from a generalized linear model plotted using a smoothing function. Eight outliers that were included for the analysis where CWD volume per transect was ≥125 m3ha-1 were removed for better visualization. CWD volumes in plantations (purple dot), natural regeneration (yellow triangle) and five nearby old-growth forests (green dot) are also represented. Mean CWD volumes per hectare for each restoration plot (n=5) and corresponding 95% confidence intervals are shown.

We also found that restoration plantations contain 41% of dead wood amounts found in old-growth forests, whereas natural regeneration only contained 1.7% of dead wood volumes found in old-growth forests. The extremely low recovery of dead wood in natural regeneration might be explained by the fact that our natural regeneration plots were dominated by exotic grasses which typically hamper tree colonization. If there are no trees growing in the plots, there cannot be dead wood either. This is an important finding, because it shows that restoration plantations area a faster and more efficient way to recover dead wood in this fragmented, pasture-dominated landscape, even though this restoration strategy might be more time consuming and expensive due to the costs and time of planting seedlings.

Overall, our study unveils an important forest process, showing that dead wood carbon pools recover following a dynamic logistic pattern through time in this Neotropical forest region. Knowing that dead wood is 50% carbon, our findings allow us to predict carbon stocks in Neotropical forests more accurately. Our study also shows that restoration plantations accelerate the recovery of dead wood carbon pools in this Neotropical ecosystem, and potentially promote the preservation of dead wood-associated biodiversity.

For more information, see our recent paper in Forest Ecology and Management, which is freely available online through March 8th, 2022.

The ‘botanical melting pot’ of Madeira: Notes on natural history and ecological restoration at species, ecosystem, and landscape scales

By James Aronson and Thibaud Aronson. All photos by Thibaud Aronson.

Perhaps best known for the fortified wines that bear its name, Madeira is in fact a small archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, some 500 kilometers (310 miles) from the shores of Morocco and about twice that distance from Lisbon. Volcanic in origin, these islands, together with the Canary Islands and the Azores, form a distinct biogeographical region, known as Macaronesia. (The islands of Cape Verde are sometimes also included in that group, but they are much farther to the south, and truly belong to the Afro-tropical realm.) Politically, the Madeira and Azores archipelagos belong to Portugal.

The main island of Madeira is just 740.7 km2 (286 mi2), while the handful of others are rather barren, and mostly uninhabited. That means the entire Madeiran archipelago is about the size of a medium-sized National Park in the US, such as Crater Lake, in Oregon, for a total population of just over 250,000.

For garden and natural history/cultural history-oriented travellers, Madeira and its neighbors – the cooler Azores to the north, and the drier Canary Islands – are spectacular: these are three of the most appealing areas of the Atlantic for human habitation, gardening, farming, and hiking, with floras and faunas related to European, Mediterranean, and African biota, as well as some unifying Macaronesian elements shared among the three archipelagos. Agricultural crops are also quite spectacularly varied, with a strong presence of vineyards of very stunning appearance, and also subtropical bananas (about which, for some history, including the tale of the EU’s “bendy banana law”, see here).

Traditional vineyards with heritage grape varieties on the slopes of Câmara de Lobos, west of the capital. Numerous banana fields share this valley and many others like it in the periurban area around the capital city of Funchal.

Of particular interest on the island – of combined natural and cultural heritage value, are the laurel forests (laurisilva to botanists). Mostly dominated by evergreen trees and tall shrubs of medium stature – no more than 15-20 m high – these kinds of forests typically occur at subtropical latitudes, in areas with mild climate and high humidity. They can be seen – in unconnected fragments for the most part, and with varying botanical composition of course – in places such as the Himalayan foothills, central Chile, or the highlands of Ethiopia. In Europe, true laurel forests used to cover much of the Mediterranean basin during the Tertiary era, from which they receded and disappeared as the region’s climate got progressively drier. Apart from a few fragments left in the remote Anti-Atlas Mountains of Morocco, and one small patch in southern Spain, the only surviving Atlantic laurel forests are found in Macaronesia. The highlands of Madeira hold the largest and best-preserved stands, somewhat protected over the past six centuries by the island’s dramatic topography and, since 2009, thanks to recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site covering 15,000 hectares.

Madeira’s laurisilva is draped in mist more often than not, and exuberant lichens and ferns cling to every tree branch, giving these forests a very primeval feeling, unlike anything else in Europe. The forest type is dominated by under a dozen evergreen tree species, most notably laurels (5 species in 4 different genera of Lauraceae) and tree heaths (Erica spp.), some of which get to be exceptionally tall for Ericas. But there are several dozen endemic shrubs and herbs in the undergrowth, such as various Geraniums and several giant daisy relatives. It has three endemic bird species as well.

The whistles of the Madeiran Firecrest (Regulus madeirensis) are one of the most common sounds of the laurisilva, as this tiny sprite of a bird flits from branch to branch.
The shy Trocaz Pigeon (Columba trocaz) is endemic to the forests of Madeira. Its two closest relatives are also laurisilva specialists, found in the western Canary Islands.
The Madeiran Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs maderensis) is most abundant along the levada canals of the Madeiran highlands, where these fearless birds have become accustomed to being fed crumbs by hikers.

The archipelago was uninhabited until Portuguese sailors claimed it for the Portuguese crown in 1417. The island’s appealing climate was not lost on them and they set about settling it. Much of what they did shaped the island that we know today and no doubt led to a massive amount of irreversible clearing, deforestation, and soil erosion, as we will discuss further on.

Madeira’s climate is very unbalanced. The northern slopes can receive nearly 3000 mm of rain in a year, while the southern part of the island is much, much drier. However, the south has gentler slopes, making it much more suitable for building and agriculture. Therefore, the Portuguese set about building levadas, irrigation canals to bring water from the north to the south. This enormous network, spanning thousands of kilometers, much of it dug from sheer cliff faces, with numerous long tunnels as well, was built over four centuries (with slave labor, many of whom lost their lives in the process); without it, large-scale settlement of Madeira would have been near impossible.

A narrow path along the levada of the Caldeirão Verde (Green Cauldron), in the island’s central highlands.
Waterfalls are plentiful along the sheer slopes of the highlands.

The island also achieved tremendous prosperity especially in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, thanks to its privileged position for maritime trade in the north Atlantic and, for a while, its role as one of the world’s largest sugar cane exporters. The richer inhabitants, taking advantage of the favorable weather, began a tradition of having extravagant gardens, with plants from all over the world. Indeed, a walk in the streets of any town on the island today will reveal gardens bursting with an incredible melting-pot of plants, with Hydrangeas (from east Asia), growing side by side with Agaves and Yuccas (from Mexico), Agapanthus (from South Africa), Brugmansias and Passionflowers (from the Andes), Bougainvillea from the South Pacific, and more marvels, all under the shade of massive Agathis and Eucalpyts (Australia) and Araucaria trees (Norfolk Island, and Chile)! There is perhaps no better illustration of this potpourri quality of the cultivated plants than the fact that Madeira’s official flower is the Bird of paradise, Strelitzia reginae, a native of… South Africa!

However, to anyone with naturalist’s eyes, a lot of what is seen outside of gardens is quite worrisome when one considers the island’s native flora, fauna, and varied ecosystems outside of the protected areas where the laurisilva occurs. There are massive areas of soil erosion, and as elsewhere throughout the Mediterranean region, abandoned lands and pastures that appear to have been cleared and then repeatedly burned over several centuries to maintain grazing lands for sheep and goats. Most of the extant revegetation has been done with Eucalyptus globulus, Mediterranean pines, and various other non-native conifers and  Australian Acacias. Of these latter fast-growing, colonizing, bird-dispersed trees, at least 6 are invasive on Madeira and the Azores, the worst of the lot being Australian blackwood.

Most slopes on the southern face of the island are completely overtaken by Australian blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) invasion, as seen here just above Funchal, the capital.

So what now, from a restoration ecology perspective? Madeira is subject to strict Portuguese laws regarding sale or import of known invasive plant species; this makes a lot of sense given that already 15% or more of the flora of Portugal, and probably more than that in the Azores and Madeira consists of non-native invasives. But a lot of work beyond protection against new invasions could be envisioned, starting with control or eradication efforts on such an island whose natural beauty and biodiversity are its greatest asset. Reintroduction and reinforcement of populations of endangered native species are also needed and initial experiments in ecosystem restoration could be undertaken on the main island and perhaps some of the smaller islands as well. Education and job training and greater funding for restoration work are all needed and would probably be of great, and lasting value to local communities and the Autonomous Region as a whole. Coordination with similar efforts in the Azores, and on the mainland territory of Portugal should all be encouraged.

One invader to be carefully monitored on Madeira is Kahili Wild Ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum) a garden-escape that is known to do great ecological damage to native woodlands in Hawai’i, and elsewhere. The IUCN considers it to be one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species. Indeed, its 1.5 to 2 m tall stalks can form extensive stands, with dense mats of rhizomes, that can choke out native understory if left unchecked. Reportedly, control efforts are underway inside the Madeira Natural Park.

But what about all the areas infested with woody weeds outside the parks and UNESCO Heritage sites in the mountains? From our point of view, the extensive and multiplying stands of Acacia melanoxylon and other invasive wattles (Australian acacias), of Gorse (Ulex europaeus) and a few other noxious woody weeds we saw plenty of,  it seems clear that manual and mechanical controls, and perhaps some biocontrol would be worth testing.

And, what about everything that ecological restoration, sensu lato, could bring to Madeira? On one road, in the center of the country, we saw a rather large plantation of tree saplings that looked like Ocotea foetens, one of the five native laurels of the laurisilva. That was encouraging to see, but the trees were planted grid-fashion and in monoculture, so that it was unclear what the intention was. As readers of this blog well know, reintroduction (or reinforcement of populations) of a single species of native plant or animal is not the same thing as ecological restoration: ‘restoration of Ocotea foetens’ is a non sequitur whereas reintroduction of this native tree, or its use in reforestation does make sense.

We also learned that studies are underway regarding the native olive tree, long considered a feral ecotype or, for some systematists, a subspecies of the widespread European olive, Olea europaea, but now generally accepted as an island endemic Olea madeirensis. Pride in such native species should be definitely encouraged, serving as a driver for more attention to what should be planted in the context of future ecological restoration programs in coastal areas and hills, and in environmental education programs, parks, and botanical gardens as well.

Next, let’s consider the spectacular Dracaena draco, or Dragon tree, that prospered on Madeira and also in the Canary Islands, Morocco, and Cape Verde, until Europeans in the 15th and 16th century began aggressive tapping of the sap from this stem succulent tree – the so-called Dragon’s blood – which was widely prized as a durable natural dye. By the end of the 16th century, Dragon tree was rendered nearly extinct in its natural distribution area thanks to a typical boom and bust pattern of exploitation, and today, the only wild populations of any importance occur on Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, with a few individuals in Morocco and Cape Verde.

This iconic tree is seen planted all over Madeira, and indeed in frost-free dryland gardens all over the world. But there probably isn’t a single wild dragon tree left on the island! So, what should attempts to restore an ecosystem with populations of Dragon tree look like, over and beyond reintroductions? What reference should be used and which provenances of what trees should be planted and what else is needed for the project to survive and be meaningful to Madeirans?

Rather spotty plantation of Dracaena draco along with the showy but non-native and potentially invasive Aloe arborescens near the village of Caniçal, on the easternmost peninsula of Madeira.
A centuries-old specimen Dragon tree in one of the surviving stands of native Dracaeno draco on Tenerife, (near El Draguillo), Canary Islands.

And now, for our last snapshot, let’s consider the Foxtail Agave, that is widely planted and clearly spreading on coastal cliffs and hills in Madeira. It is an absolutely stunning plant, and of great natural history interest but it starting to naturalize, following in the pattern of Agave americana and Opuntia stricta, that could already be considered serious weeds. Local people probably don’t consider that a problem, and we can certainly understand that, given the newcomer’s graceful beauty. But like the Kahili ginger, and the widely planted Aloe arborescens, the Foxtail Agave is a serious pest on O’ahu and other Hawai’ian islands, and this should give cause for concern to Madeirans.

Fox-tail Agave, Agave attenuata naturalized near Câmara de Lobos.

But, then, who are we to say what attitude Madeirans and their authorities should adopt towards non-native invasives? Given the fact that tourism is now far and away the leading economic sector on the island, perhaps – like the Galapagos Islands, or Iceland, or Malta – greater sensitivity to the need for and the value of ecological restoration efforts will develop in the future.

One thing we could offer is a reminder that ecological restoration clearly includes restoration (or ecological and economic rehabilitation) of cultural or semi-cultural ecosystems, not to mention social-ecological systems and cultural landscapes. In the case of Madeira, this line of thinking would allow for reflection, and encourage investment in the restoration and rehabilitation of the working landscapes that thrived in lower latitudes on the southern half of the island with irrigation water being provided from the levada networks in the mountains. We can imagine remarkably interesting and inspiring landscape-scale restoration with ample opportunities for agritourism, and an expanded form of nature-based or ecotourism that would include cultural landscapes and heritage crops and traditional livelihoods, developed along corridors and valleys connecting levada canals all the way down to restored ‘working landscapes’ that certainly could have multiple benefits for local communities, for biodiversity, and for an emerging restoration economy linked to tourism. Worth considering, no?

 

Bee-friendly beef: rehabilitating cattle pastures to increase pollinator habitat

Dr. Parry Kietzman is a research scientist in Virginia Tech’s School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. Here she describes a new experiment aimed at improving Southeastern grazing lands to improve cow health, provide habitat for pollinators, and conserve plant biodiversity. A member of the bee-friendly beef team since 2020, her work focuses on the ecology and conservation of pollinating insects.

Across the world, pastures account for over 20% of the Earth’s land surface, an area roughly the size of Africa. Many of these pastures were once species-rich meadows, prairies, and woodlands that offered abundant and diverse food resources for pollinators, but are now limited to a handful of species that provide forage for grazing livestock.

Lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), a native composite sewn into an active cattle pasture near Stuart, Virginia. Photo credit: Parry Kietzman.

Pollinating insects such as bees, flies, butterflies, moths, and beetles are currently in crisis, as habitat loss from development, intensive agriculture, and other human activities have diminished the food sources and nesting sites they rely on. The conservation of pollinators native to each particular region is especially important, as many plants depend on native specialists for pollination. The widely-kept, domesticated, European honey bee (Apis mellifera L.), though of great importance to modern agriculture, is often not successful or at least not as efficient at pollinating certain plants as the bee specialists that coevolved alongside each particular species. Landscapes rich in a diversity of plant species native to that location are therefore needed to provide habitat for these native pollinators.

Some types of beetles, such as the soldier beetles (Colanoptera: Cantharidae) pictured here, also visit flowers and can provide pollination services. Soldier beetles feed on nectar and pollen and do not damage their plant hosts. Photo credit: Parry Kietzman.

Researchers at Virginia Tech, the University of Tennessee, and Virginia Working Landscapes are currently collaborating on a multi-year rehabilitation project to plant native North American prairie grasses and wildflowers in cattle pastures in Virginia and Tennessee. The project is based on the idea that a landscape can be supportive of healthy cattle production while at the same time providing ecological niches for pollinating insects. Bringing back diverse food sources for pollinators in pastures, however, presents some significant challenges. First, the plants must not be harmful to livestock that may graze on them. Second, they must be hardy and practical to establish in new and existing pastureland. Finally, they should be native to the region in which they will be planted, as this will be most beneficial to that region’s native pollinators and help prevent the accidental introduction of invasive species.

Some of the wildflower species used in our experiment, such as this blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella), are native to North America but not naturally found in Virginia or Tennessee. Photo credit: Parry Kietzman.

Our team is currently working to identify and successfully establish seed mixes that thrive in Virginia and Tennessee without becoming excessively weedy or crowding out grasses grazed on by cattle. Once established, pollinator diversity and abundance will be measured in plots with and without wildflowers introduced. Herds of cattle grazing in the pastures will also be monitored for health and body condition.

Bumble bees are common visitors at our wildflower-enhanced sites. Photo credit: Parry Kietzman.

Results from this study, including critical information about best practices for establishing the seed mixes, optimal grazing regimes to promote blooms, and wildflowers as forage will be disseminated to growers and other stakeholders through extension services such as published fact sheets, protocols, and workshops. This foundational work will help inform researchers and land managers around the globe how to transform pasturelands into landscapes that can help save our pollinators.

For more information on this ongoing study, visit the team’s website: beesandbeef.spes.vt.edu.

A wildflower-enhanced pasture in southwestern Virginia in mid-summer 2021. Photo credit: Parry Kietzman.

Healing communities by healing country: First Nations peoples are increasingly leading ecological restoration programs for Australia’s threatened and degraded landscapes

Adam Cross, Keith Bradby, and James Aronson describe and discuss some of the 120+ Indigenous Peoples-led programs in Australia that are setting a benchmark for the sustainable and ecologically-responsible management of the nation’s unique natural landscapes.

In the 233 years since 1788, when European colonisation of Australia began, catastrophic environmental and social cost has been endured by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. During the same period, the ancient continent’s megadiverse native ecosystems have been transformed or replaced at almost incomprehensible scale and speed. Much of the natural landscape has been dramatically and tragically altered by activities such as the agricultural and livestock husbandry practices imported by the new settlers, rampant deforestation, mining, and urban development, as well as poor fire management coupled with weed, animal and disease invasion. For example, in Western Australia, agricultural expansion by Europeans led to 97% of native vegetation to date being cleared from much of the 155,000 km2 (60,000 mi2) Wheatbelt area surrounding Perth—a short-sighted endeavour that has altered regional climate and left vast areas desertified, unproductive, and acutely affected by dryland salinity. What’s more, this industrial-scale exploitation, transformation, and degradation of natural ecosystems has not only caused great loss of biodiversity and ecological functioning, but also damage to human health and well-being—with the costs being borne disproportionately by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Yet, tragically, it is these First Nations peoples of Australia who are the custodians of an ancient multi-millennial cultural understanding that people are a part of nature and that the health of Country (vernacular in Australia for the natural or native landscapes) and its people are intrinsically intertwined.

Ecologist Jim Underwood and Nowanup Noongar Ranger Nigel Eades establishing camera traps to monitor wildlife movements on a property owned by Bush Heritage Australia. Photo: Nic Duncan.

In light of worldwide ecosystem degradation and decline, as well as increasing concern both in Australia and globally around the growing public costs of addressing mental and physical ill-health, there is growing awareness of the value and urgent need to link applied ecology and public health in recognition of the importance of healthy, biodiverse ecosystems to human society. 

In the terminology adopted by the EcoHealth Network, ecohealth is a concept that combines ecosystem health and public health as intertwined objectives with an emphasis on ecological restoration and allied activities (e.g., agroforestry, permaculture, regenerative urban planning and design, etc.). The science, practice, and policy of ecological restoration, when undertaken within an ecohealth approach, considers its implications for human health in a holistic way. Likewise, public health interventions imbued with an ecohealth perspective take into account the role of ecosystem health in impacting human health and reducing the risk of public health disasters. This framework differs from planetary health and One Health in that it is grounded in place-based ecological restoration of degraded ecosystems and the improvement of the human culture-nature connection. Thus, it addresses causes of ecosystem degradation and fragmentation, not just human and animal health-related symptoms and crises. The ‘ecohealth hypothesis’ posits that the restoration and rehabilitation of a degraded ecosystem will have significant health benefits for people who interact with that ecosystem, in present and future generations. However, there is nothing new in this concept for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. They have known of the value of more-than-human nature and its benefits for human health for tens of thousands of years. In fact, it is this deep cultural understanding that underpins the strong imperative for ecological stewardship, vis à vis their “country”, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. This foundational, and all-too-often forgotten, network of linkages between ecological and human health is captured, for example, by the cultural mindset of the Noongar and Ngadju Peoples of Western Australia, one of the oldest living cultures on Earth: “We are a people who look after country and the country looks after us” (Ngadju Elder Les Schultz).

Planting activities at the first Indigenous owned and managed native seed farm, in the Mid West region of Western Australia, aiming to generate native seeds to meet the demands of ecological restoration activities on mined lands throughout the region. Photo: Kingsley Dixon.

Healthy Country is a crucial determinant of physical, social, cultural, and spiritual well-being. There is a need to return to this and related ancestral Indigenous paradigms as we strive to live more sustainably towards a vision of a prosperous, healthier future (Bradby et al. 2021). Moreover, in practical terms, we need to find ways to create synergies between so-called Western, inductive science and ancestral Indigenous paradigms, ecological knowledge, and ways of knowing.

Nowanup Noongar rangers establishing wildlife camera traps with Bush Heritage Australia. Photo: Nic Duncan.

The quality and integrity of the ecosystems within which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live, and of which they see themselves as an inseparable component, is central to lore and culture. “Healthy Country gives off a greater vibration, and it speaks louder. Country that isn’t healthy also speaks and sings us there, and demands that we take action to heal it, its spirit and our spirit.” (Yamatji Noongar woman Heidi Mippy). Studies show that stronger relationships with Country and greater involvement in cultural practices enhance the well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and that individuals from more remote regions with daily access to and contact with their Country have higher levels of well-being than individuals that have been removed or relocated from traditional lands (Schultz et al 2018).

Indigenous seed collector assessing fruit maturity on Crotalaria cunninghamii, an important nitrogen-fixing pioneer shrub in post-mining ecological restoration in the northeast Kimberley region of Western Australia. Photo: Adam Guest.

Ecological degradation not only erodes biodiversity, compromises livelihoods, reduces ecosystem services, and impacts food security and cultural resilience, but also drives numerous environmental determinants of disease including allergies, anxiety disorders, immune dysfunction, infectious and zoonotic diseases, and mental health illnesses (Romanelli et al. 2015; Bhatnagar 2017; Burbank et al. 2017). European colonization has left a legacy of depression and cultural disconnection in farming communities throughout the above-mentioned Wheatbelt, which in turn has led to higher rates of suicide and chronic disease risk (Speldewinde et al. 2015).

The Nowanup Noongar Rangers often work on major restoration projects. Here they are planting a 300 metre totem animal, the Karda (Goanna), on land near Koi Kyeunu-ruff (the Stirling Ranges). Photo: Amanda Keesing.

These public health impacts of ecological degradation are straining health care systems and causing rising public health costs in Australia, and many places around the world. This in turn highlights the urgent need for a transition to a restorative culture (Cross et al. 2019; Blignaut & Aronson 2020), and recognition that ecological restoration, i.e., the repair of ecosystems that have been damaged, degraded or destroyed (Gann et al. 2019), should be recognized as an effective and cost-efficient public health intervention (Breed et al. 2020). Ecological restoration may be the best single strategy and toolbox for addressing climate change, biodiversity loss, and the poverty and misery related to ecological degradation and desertification. Ecological restoration and related activities, if undertaken in a participatory fashion, and through the pathways by which human well-being can be benefited by nature, may be effective in advancing health equity and addressing health disparities (Jelks et al 2021).

Ecological restoration is the only way by which landscapes degraded through activities such as mining (left) can be restored towards the biodiverse, ecologically functional ecosystems that were present prior to European colonisation (right), concurrently improving the physical, psychological, and cultural well-being of communities reliant upon these ecosystems.

Many of the nature exposure benefit pathways now suggested by “Western” science align well with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lore and culture regarding ethnobotany, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), and how ecological and human health intersect. For example, potential pathways identified include exposure to environmental microbiota and plant-derived volatile organic compounds, the sight and sound-scape of nature, exposure to sunlight, and increased physical activity and social interaction (Marselle et al. 2021). For example, Noongar newborns were rubbed with plant-based oils to ensure strong and healthy development, aromatic leaves were crushed and inhaled or used to make infusions or ointments, the vapours of leaves and twigs of certain plants heated over coals were inhaled, and certain soils and animal fats were used both medicinally and in maintaining good health (Hansen and Horsfall 2018). Noongar People commonly use the environment around them to enhance physical, spiritual, social and emotional well-being, even recognising that different species play different roles in this relationship: “There are certain trees that we sit under when our spirit is down, we have to sit under that tree. We don’t cut that tree down, we don’t even take a branch off it. And they say when the needles fall on us from this tree… we’re told that’s the tears of our old people healing us. And when you hear the breeze whisper through that, that’s the old people singing to us, to heal us.” (Balladong Wadjuk Yorga/woman Vivienne Hansen).

Curtin University students being formally welcomed to a Nowanup camp by Noongar Elder Eugene Eades and the then Curtin Elder in Residence Professor Simon Forrest. Photo: Belinda Gibson.

Recent years have seen increasing incidence in landcare and ecological restoration activities led and undertaken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations. Over 120 Indigenous Ranger Programs now operate Australia, drawing from deep cultural knowledge and connection to country to protect and manage terrestrial and also near-coastal and marine ecosystems. Ranger programs, and many other Indigenous-led and managed initiatives, are now involved in environmental management ranging from feral animal and weed control to fire management, and from native seed collection to landscape-scale ecological restoration activities. In many regions these programs, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals who represent them, now lead the way and set the benchmark for sustainable and ecologically-responsible environmental management.

The re-introduction of more traditional management practices has happened rapidly in some areas. Across the ambitious Gondwana Link program in south-western Australia there are over a dozen First Nations ranger and land management teams, all of which have been established in the past fifteen years. One of these, the Ngadju Conservation Aboriginal Corporation, covers a massive 4.4 million hectares. Ngadju Conservation operate from a headquarters in the central town of Norseman, and undertake a wide range of cultural and ecological management efforts. Through agreement between the Traditional Owners of the land and the Commonwealth Government 78 dedicated Indigenous Protected Areas (IPA), covering over 74 million hectares, have been established since 1997. In these the national government provides funding to assist with land management, as set out in an agreed plan. The Ngadju IPA was formally designated in March 2021.

In Gondwana Link’s central zone, where marginal farmland is being purchased and restored ecologically, Noongar people have been welcomed back to the properties. On one of these, called Nowanup, the Noongar and settler community work together to maintain ecologically important habitats and replanted areas, as well as undertaking an ongoing series of cultural courses and camps. Since 2006 some 17,000 people have been through these camps, ranging from Noongar men at risk through to member of local community groups, school students from near and far and, more recently, groups of University students.

In recognition of the growing and leading role played by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the restoration of Australia’s degraded landscapes, major national initiatives have been proposed seeking to support Indigenous-led environmental management. One such initiative is a newly-funded research centre to be established at Western Australia’s Curtin University, which will fuse Indigenous knowledge and traditional approaches with western science to rehabilitate and restore Country. This centre, the Australian Research Council Training Centre for Healing Country, aims to develop an economy centred around Indigenous-led ecological restoration activities; an economy built from a foundation of healthy Country intended to deliver both environmental outcomes and economic opportunity by developing Indigenous land management and restoration businesses into major regional employers.

The ARC Training Centre for Healing Country aims to establish strong, complementary and intersectional research pathways in ecological restoration (practices to repair degraded landscapes), ecohealth (understanding the intersection between ecological restoration and human health), and socioeconomics (examining how ecological restoration benefits livelihoods and social-cultural resilience). The aim is to bring Indigenous knowledge and traditional approaches together with western science and create better and more diverse pathways for the training of Indigenous peoples in environmental management and ecological restoration activities. In addition, Indigenous enterprises can be strengthened, grown, and empowered, and a diversified and Indigenous-led restoration economy can be a pathway along which we all work together towards a future of healthy Country and healthier multi-cultural society in Australia.

References cited

Bhatnagar, A. 2017. Environmental determinants of cardiovascular disease. Circulation Research 121: 162-180.

Blignaut, J.N., J. Aronson 2020. Developing a restoration narrative: A pathway towards system-wide healing and a restorative culture. Ecological Economics 168: 106483.

Bradby, K., K.J. Wallace, A.T. Cross E. Flies, C. Witehira, A. Keesing, T. Dudley, M.F. Breed, G. Howling, P. Weinstein & J. Aronson 2021. The Four Islands EcoHealth Program: An Australasian regional initiative for synergistic restoration of ecosystem and human health. Restoration Ecology 29, e13382.

Breed, M.F., A.T. Cross, K. Wallace, K., Bradby, E. Flies, N. Goodwin, M. Jones, L. Orlando, C. Skelly, P. Weinstein & J. Aronson 2020. Ecosystem restoration – a public health intervention. EcoHealth. https://doi.10.1007/s10393-020-01480-1

Burbank, A.J., Sood, A.K., Kesic, M.J., Peden, D.B., Hernandez, M.L. 2017. Environmental determinants of allergy and asthma in early life. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 140, 1-12.

Cross, A.T., Neville, P.G., Dixon, K.W., Aronson, J. 2019. Time for a paradigm shift towards a restorative culture. Restoration Ecology 27: 924-928.

Gann, G.D., McDonald, T., Walder, B., Aronson, J., Nelson, C.R., Jonson, J., Hallett, J.G., Eisenberg, C., Guariguata, M.R., Liu, J., Hua, F. 2019. International principles and standards for the practice of ecological restoration. Restoration Ecology 27: S1-S46.

Jelks, N.T.O., Jennings, V. and Rigolon, A. 2021. Green gentrification and health: A scoping review. International journal of environmental research and public health 18: 907.

Marselle, M.R., Hartig, T., Cox, D.T., de Bell, S., Knapp, S., Lindley, S., Triguero-Mas, M., Böhning-Gaese, K., Braubach, M., Cook, P.A., de Vries, S. 2021. Pathways linking biodiversity to human health: A conceptual framework. Environment International 150: 106420.

Romanelli, C., Cooper, D., Campbell-Lendrum, D., Maiero, M., Karesh, W.B., Hunter, D. and Golden, C.D., 2015. Connecting global priorities: biodiversity and human health: a state of knowledge review. World Health Organistion/Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Speldewinde, P.C., Slaney, D., Weinstein, P. 2015. Is restoring an ecosystem good for your health?. Science of the Total Environment 502: 276-279.

Schultz, R., Abbott, T., Yamaguchi, J., Cairney, S. 2019. Australian Indigenous Land Management, Ecological Knowledge and Languages for Conservation. EcoHealth 16: 171-176.

The importance of knowledge of cultural values for dryland ecological restoration: Lessons from Argentine Patagonia

Fernando Farinaccio, Eliane Ceccon and Daniel Pérez, describe the importance of documenting cultural values, in the use of native flora, as a contribution to the restoration of drylands. Fernando is a researcher at the Laboratory for the Rehabilitation and Restoration of Arid and Semi-arid Ecosystems (LARREA), Argentina. Eliane is a researcher at the Regional Center for Multidisciplinary Research at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), Mexico, and Daniel is the scientific director of LARREA.

NB. LARREA belongs to the Faculty of Environmental and Health Sciences of the National University of Comahue, Argentina, where sixteen researchers and collaborators study selection of species for the recovery of sites with severe disturbance, seed-based restoration, interactions between exotic and native species, agroecological systems, and restoration-based education.

The extreme socio-ecological transformation and degradation of vast areas of arid Argentinean Patagonia has its origin in the 1880s when the Argentine government carried out an official program of extermination of all Indigenous Peoples (ignominiously called the “Desert campaign”). The goal was to consolidate political dominance over the coveted territories and to expand livestock production.

As elsewhere, this genocide led to a tragic loss of human lives and the uprooting and dispossession of native inhabitants who had lived in and managed this country for millennia prior to the arrival of the Europeans – most of whom had little or no understanding of the natural dynamics of this arid and semiarid territory or in the lives and cultures of the peoples who lived there.

Aguada San Roque, an isolated rural settlement of 160 inhabitants, extends over an area of 142,000 hectares in an arid basin called “Añelo basin” in northern Patagonia. It is characterized by high altitude variability, from 223 to 2258 meters above sea level, over a linear distance of 50 km. This town is in one of the most arid ecosystems of Argentina called ‘Monte’ (Busso and Fernández 2017). This ecosystem covers 20% (approximately 50 million hectares) of Argentina. The Monte has an annual average temperature of 12°C, with a high thermal amplitude and an annual temperature range from 40°C to −13°C (Coronato et al. 2017). The relationship between precipitation and potential evapotranspiration ranges from 0.05 to 0.5, indicating a strong water deficit.

“Jarillas” (Larrea spp.; Zygophyllaceae; creosote bush, in English) are the shrub species that give the typical appearance of most natural environments of Aguada San Roque. The dominant species of jarilla (L. divaricata, L. cuneifolia, and L. nitida) can reach approximately 2 meters in height when mature. For the attentive eye, it is probable that hybridizations between them have occurred and generated, among others, the striking “dwarf jarilla”(Larrea ameghinoi), that only reaches 20 to 30 cm in height.

Photo 1. Larrea divaricata. Typical of the natural environment around Aguada San Roque, Patagonia Argentina. Credit: Daniel Pérez.
Photo 2. “Dwarf Jarilla“ (Larrea ameghinoi).A species present in some areas of the Añelo basin. Its biology and reproduction  are very poorly known, but like all Creosote bush species in southern South America and the arid regions of North America, they have enormous influence on ecosystem functioning. Credit: Daniel Pérez.

Despite the aridity of the Añelo Basin, where it rains only 150 mm (6 inches) a year on average, with some years of only 50 mm, the beauty of nature is starkly visible to those who pay attention to details, and its mystery is slowly being revealed through scientific studies of the surprising and wonderful  strategies of plant and animal adaptations to aridity and drought. For example, Grindelia chiloensis (Asteraceae) known as “yellow love” or “honey-eyed” surprises and intrigues with its sticky stems, leaves, and flowers, all bearing so much resin that it is perceptible to the slightest touch. This trait is the result of biochemical efforts to manufacture organic compounds to avoid water loss. Fully 1/3 of the dry weight biomass of individual Grindelia shrubs is made up of these dense resins that allow it to adapt and thrive under the most arid and – importantly – degraded environments.

Photo 3. Detail of the flower of Grindelia chiloensis. Credit: Paul Alvarez.

A species that has probably been benefiting from the advance of wind deposits that multiply due to overgrazing is the “Patagonian lily” (Habranthus jamesonii; Amaryllidaceae). This plant is only noticeably visible in spring, as it develops from bulbs that remain under the sand during periods of unfavorable weather.

Photo 4. Habranthus jamesonii plant and flower in a sandy environment near Aguada San Roque. Credit: Daniel Pérez.

A plant that is almost white in color due to saline exudates is Atriplex lampa; Chenopodiaceae; a member of the widespread arid lands Saltbush genus that rewards the watchful eyes of the desert dwellers (Photo 5). This species has a profuse annual production of fruits with two small bracts that act as ‘wings’(Photo 6).

Photo 5: Atriplex lampa, typical of Monte desert landscapes, with fruits (almost yellow) in spring. Credit: Daniel Pérez.
Photo 6: Fruits of Atriplex lampa. Two bracts act as wings, facilitating their flight and dispersal by the wind. Credit: Paul Alvarez.

In very saline and clayey soils of our region, Halophytum ameghinoi (Halophytaceae) is very common. This species accumulates water in its stems and leaves as a strategy to withstand droughts. Their colors vary from intensely red to green tones during the juvenile and adult growth phases (Photo 7).

Photo 7: Juvenile individual of Halophytum ameghinoi. The increase in salty soils due to degradation will probably increase the amount of natural habitat for this species. Credit: Daniel Pérez.

Sadly, Aguada San Roque, like all the neighboring settlements, is seriously affected by long-standing desertification and degradation processes. Recently, the exploitation of large deposits of shale gas and oil, using fracking technology in the geological formation called “Vaca Muerta”, has revitalized economic activity, but also has induced a new and severe wave of environmental damage both underground and on the surface.

Photo 8: The preparation of land for the extraction of hydrocarbons entails a tremendously brutal action that spells disaster for biodiversity, ecosystem ‘health’ and, ultimately, human health and wellbeing. Credit: Daniel Pérez.
Photo 9: The action of the goats is not perceived with the same sensation of negative impact as that of the heavy machines engaged in fracking. However, overstocking of domestic livestock also causes irreversible damage. Credit: Daniel Pérez.
Photo 10: Frequent dust storms are one of the consequences of overstocking livestock. Aguada San Roque. Credit: Fernando Farinaccio.
Photo 11: A barchan dune, an example of the intense erosive processes in the vicinity of the Aguada San Roque settlement. These natural processes are exacerbated by overgrazing and intense hydrocarbon extraction activity. Credit: Eliane Ceccon.

Therefore, in this region, it is essential to plan and carry out ecological restoration and rehabilitation projects and programs that take into account the harsh socioeconomic conditions of the local population and include them in the process from the beginning. Fully 24% of the inhabitants – all of whom are of “criollo” origin – live in stark poverty, and more than 30% are illiterate. Life for these people is truly precarious, with little or no easy access to potable water and gas, and only 15% have electricity in their homes. Despite these conditions, the families that live there show an admirable desire to find ways of life that will allow them to continue inhabiting these arid lands.

Photo 12: Irma and Adalberto are owners of more than 9000 hectares of arid lands dedicated to raising goats in the Aguada San Roque area. They were unable to finish their basic studies in school and they have very limited income from the goats that they sell in informal markets. They are typical puesteros, or small scale farmers, of the region. Credit: Eliane Ceccon.
Photo 13: Irma roams the arid lands trying to prevent predators such as pumas (Felis concolor) and foxes (Lycalopex culpaeus) from attacking her goats, while directing and herding them to the few locations that can provide intermittent supplies of forage and water. Credit: Eliane Ceccon.

Therefore, due to the dire socioeconomic conditions mentioned above, it is necessary to conceive and launch sustainable restoration and rehabilitation projects that in addition to recovering ecological processes and functioning must also offer tangible goods and services to the local human population. In this sense, what we call “productive restoration” may be the most appropriate strategy, since it aims to recover soil productivity and offer products for the local population, along with some of the elements of the structure and function of the pre-disturbance ecosystem. (This is comparable to ecological rehabilitation as the term is used in the Society for Ecological Restoration Primer; SER 2004).

As mentioned, a critical key to successfully developing productive restoration projects in San Roque and other settlements in Argentinean Patagonia is to know and understand the socio-ecological context of the local population, in cultural, educational, health, and socio-economic terms, and also the values that local people assign to native plant species. We carried out surveys and interviews among the local inhabitants and visits to each of their landholdings, which allowed us to evaluate the knowledge and the value that they gave to the local flora, and their interest in cultivating native (and introduced) species in future restoration projects. The ecological attributes of selected species, and their importance for the productive restoration were obtained through a literature review. This review arises as part of Fernando Farinaccio’s PhD work. For more details and information, read his open access paper in Ecosystems and People.

Photo 14: Sometimes family settlements are located in places where there is an outcrop with easy access to groundwater (for example, a natural spring).This settlement recently benefited from government subsidies to improve water storage, allowing them to purchase and install the two water tanks shown here. Credit: Eliane Ceccon.

Local knowledge and use value of the native flora

Puesteros that we interviewed identified a total of 44 multipurpose species, of which 38 were native. Among the most frequently mentioned native species, Prosopis flexuosa var. depressa, Atriplex lampa, and Larrea spp., were considered by puesteros to have the highest potential and promise to restore and rehabilitate their fields and landholdings. The main reasons were not only ecological, but also the multiple uses of the plants, such as providing high quality fodder for livestock, and firewood for heating and cooking.

Photo 15: A portion of a plantation of Atriplex lampa (a nutritious and palatable native shrub) carried out in 2012 in a degraded area near Aguada San Roque. A recent study has proposed this species as a “framework species” for dryland ecological restoration (Pérez et al. 2019). Credit: Laboratory for the Rehabilitation and Restoration of Arid and Semi-arid Ecosystems, National University of Comahue, Argentina.

Ecological attributes for the reintroduction and reinforcement of populations of the plant species most valued by puesteros

According to studies carried out locally, the most valued species show high and easy germination (with rates of >60%) and are relatively easy to propagate in plant nurseries (see Farinaccio et al. 2021). In addition, some of them have shown high success in terms of survival and growth in field experiments (>70%) (see Pérez et al. 2019; 2020). These species are attractive because they are food sources for vertebrates and invertebrates, and also offer thermal refuge and nest sites for seed dispersers (Farinaccio et al. 2021).

Characteristics of puesteros‘ home gardens

Home gardens are traditional agroforestry systems supporting subsistence of poor rural families, and they are usually located near people’s homes. These home garden shave also been the cradle for selection, domestication, diversification, and conservation of elements of flora and fauna, and the preservation of cultural values. In the puestero’s home gardens, a total of 44 species were identified, of which 85% were exotic, and used to obtain forest products (from afforestation), 47% for shade and other amenities, and only 40% to obtain forage, food, and medicine.

Photo 16. Puesteros often use exotic trees in their home gardens. The most frequently used species are Eucalyptus spp., Populus spp., and Tamarix ramosissima, all of which are used for shade and wind breaks. Credit: Fernando Farinaccio.
Photo 17. In some home gardens, small areas marked off with wooden or iron fences are used for the production of fruit trees, medicinal species, and forage (A). The cultivation of species for food consumption is also carried out (B), and in some cases, these species are protected from inclement weather (e.g., intense winds, and extreme low and high temperatures), through the construction of small greenhouses (C). Credit: Fernando Farinaccio.

Conclusions

The socio-ecological, economic, and cultural contexts of the Aguada San Roque community showed an unfavorable well-being panorama. Likewise, the extensive livestock production system, on which all puesteros’ depend for their subsistence, added to the intense hydrocarbon activity (fracking), have triggered an irreversible desertification process. In this context, local people recognize a low percentage of useful native species and prefer to use a large proportion of exotic species.Similar results have been documented in other studies in drylands of Argentina and the world. The low results regarding the use of native species by the local inhabitants, and the preference in the use of exotic species, show a loss of traditional ecological knowledge, which could be a consequence of the above-mentioned historical occupation of arid Argentinean Patagonia. However, they expressed motivation and interest in sharing their historical practices with restoration actions with multipurpose native species. Beyond this unfavorable panorama, the puesteros expressed motivation and interest in carrying out restoration and rehabilitation actions with multipurpose native species. The three species most frequently mentioned by the puesteros (Prosopis flexuosa var. depressa, Atriplex lampa, and Larrea spp.), were all successfully established in ongoing restoration pilot studies.

This study proposes that the interpretation of the historical, social, cultural, and ecological reality of local people is fundamental before undertaking ecological restoration and rehabilitation programs. “Top down” programs may not be successful if the local inhabitants’ needs, desires, and proposals are not taken into account. A restoration-based education program can help implement these projects successfully. The program may promote the strengthening of local capacities and the rescue of traditional knowledge; increase collective learning, to ultimately restore the historical links between local people and the native, natural ecosystem.

References cited and additional reading

Busso, C.A., O.A. Fernández. 2017. Arid and semi-arid rangelands of Argentina. In: Gaur, M.K., V.R. Squires, editors. Climate variability impacts on land use and livelihoods in drylands. New York: Springer InternationalPublishing; p. 261–291.

Coronato, A., E. Mazzoni, M. Vázquez, F. Coronato. 2017. Patagonia: una síntesis de su geografía física. Santa Cruz (Argentina): Editorial de la Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia Austral. ISBN 978-987-3714-40-5.

Farinaccio, F.M., E. Ceccon, D.R. Pérez. 2021. Starting points for the restoration of desertified drylands: puesteros’ cultural values in the use of native flora. J Ecosystem & People. 17:476-490. https://doi.org/10.1080/26395916.2021.1968035

Pérez, D.R., F.M. Farinaccio, J. Aronson. 2019. Towards a Dryland Framework Species Approach. Research in progress in the Monte Austral of Argentina. J. Arid Environments 161:1-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaridenv.2018.09.001.

Pérez, D.R., C. Pilustrelli, F.M. Farinaccio, G. Sabino, J. Aronson. 2020. Evaluating success of various restorative interventions through drone- and field-collected data, using six putative framework species in Argentinian Patagonia. Restoration Ecology. 28:44-53. https:// doi: 10.1111/rec.13025.

SER (Society for Ecological Restoration International Science & Policy Working Group). 2004. The SER International Primer on Ecological Restoration.https://www.ser-rrc.org/resource/the-ser-international-primer-on/.

In search of a lost natural community: the Ozark savanna edition

Calvin Maginel is the Ecological Resource Scientist at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Missouri.

Anyone hoping to join the articulate stream of Missouri articles about natural communities ought to lovingly reference Paul Nelson’s “The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri” (2010). In that vein, we will start our journey with page 233, the Savanna.

Paul differentiates savannas largely by overstory, topography, and light level characteristics. Primarily, savannas are grasslands that happen to hold little pockets, family clusters, of trees, that mosey through the swaying grass like the slowest of turtles. The natural history of these clusters is as such: a mature parent hosts numerous offspring around her perimeter that shelter her from the repeated onslaughts of prairie fires, while she in turn nurtures offspring on the lee side which will eventually replace her. They are separate from woodlands in that savannas exhibit a tree canopy of less than 30%, while woodlands can range from 30% to 90% canopy. Paul further describes the ground flora layer of savannas as being highly indicative of a prairie, holding the majority of a site’s diversity, and being strongly adapted to frequent fire.

Of the six savanna communities Paul describes, as nostalgia blurs the typeset, two are considered S1 (critically imperiled) and four are SH, or state historic. A glass of cold water to the face: no known examples remain when something is classified as state historic. To put numbers on this, an estimated 6.5 million acres of savanna in Missouri are now represented by <1,000 recognized acres. Robin Wall Kimmerer aptly wrote: “If grief can be a doorway to love, then let us all weep for the world we are breaking apart so we can love it back to wholeness again.”

Stylized drawings of the prairie-forest continuum, borrowed from The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook by Packard and Mutel.

Recognizing a savanna

As nice as it is to reminisce about and romanticize processes long devastated by European colonizers, if there are (nearly) no savannas left, then why does it matter? Well, there still is hope! While Missouri has a fair percentage of public land (11.2%), most of which has received extensive visits by ecologists throughout the years, the other 88.8% of private lands in Missouri often harbor as-yet-undescribed natural communities that may classify as savanna. In an effort to heighten awareness of these potential gems in the fire-starved hills, I offer a photo tour of a private site in southwest Washington County, near the town of Courtois, that could be described as a savanna. A few points about this site: it is currently being managed for its ground flora character, with repeated fire and herbicide, specifically to the detriment of encroaching cedars and woody re-sprouts. For 25 years prior to the current ownership, it received two fires and periodic mowing to maintain its relatively shrub-free character. Prior to that, it is assumed that this was a hay meadow, cut annually for livestock that were grazed in the valley nearby but not itself grazed. There is a rusty but strong sickle-bar mower still parked in the grass that is set up for a mule to pull, with patent dates from the 1920s.

Since Paul begins with the overstory, so too will this tour. Anecdotal descriptions of certain areas in the Ozarks by foresters refer to “wolf trees”, trees with spreading branches that were removed from the woodlot since those individuals were considered to be exhausting resources around themselves, much as wolves were believed to be harmful predators that exhausted prey species. An example of this can be found in Photo 1, where a large white oak shows the breadth of branches characteristic of an “undesirable” wolf tree. As mentioned in the caption, the health of the lowest branches can tell something about a site’s history. Overgrazing by cattle or other domestic animals often defoliates these branches until the tree sheds them entirely, so an observation of a tree similar to this one might mean that this site was hayed but not grazed intensively.

Now that photos have been mentioned, we’ll begin the photo tour in earnest. All photos are from August 22nd, 2021, unless otherwise stated. To the right side of Photos 1, 2, and 3, you will notice a young shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) with a wolfish future, and in Photos 2 and 3, there is a distinctive Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) that seems to have lost half its top. All other photos will contain at least a blurry version of those two distinctive trees, in an effort to maintain scale. Speaking of scale, the distance between the white oak wolf tree and the red cedar is a little over 250 feet (76 meters). Photos 2 and 3, of almost the same area at different phenologies, hold the first real hope of a savanna classification. The structure is distinctively grass- and forb-dominated. While clearly the floral display is greater during June, this is not unexpected in an intact prairie system where suitable micro-habitats are dominated by the best-adapted competitors for those micro-habitats. For example, the glade coneflower in Photo 3 is distributed between the foreground of the photo and the base of the pine tree, but seems to decrease in abundance towards the red cedar in the upper left of the photo. Presumably, soil or other characteristics make the former area highly suitable for glade coneflower, despite the fact that no bedrock or other glade indicators occur in those areas. That said, it stands to reason that glade coneflower, currently relatively restricted to glade communities, must have had a mechanism to lay claim to those communities. Possibly this species was historically as ubiquitous in Ozark savannas and prairies as it currently is in glades.

Photo 1. Forgive the valiantly bolting hickory grubs and mowed path, but this white oak (Quercus alba) exemplifies the spreading nature of a relatively open-grown specimen. Note how the lower branches actually touch the warm season grasses: despite 5 recent years of annual dormant season fire, they are not set back. In fact, one telltale of current or historical colonizer-style grazing is that these perpetually-stretching side limbs are defoliated until they succumb and die. Trees with this character can tell a lot about a site’s history.
Photo 2. With the same white oak as in Photo 1 to the left of the frame, this photo shows the vegetative structure of the site. You will notice a handful of woody re-sprout clumps, but this area is largely dominated by warm season grasses and prairie forbs.
Photo 3. June 14, 2016 is the date on this photo. Note the profusion of wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) and glade coneflower (Echinacea simulata), the latter of which is commonly identified by its yellow pollen. The more westerly species with white pollen, E. pallida, does not occur on this site.

In addition to the striking summer floral display in Photo 3, there are distinct waves of blooms throughout the season. Each species, present in profusion in its preferred micro-habitat and scattered elsewhere, blooms en masse and then fades into the background, letting another take the stage like a carefully-choreographed dance.

At this point, you may be noticing that the common names for many of the plants listed in the photo captions refer to a habitat (eg “glade” coneflower, “upland” white goldenrod, “prairie” coreopsis). This name-relation to a community can serve to help with identifying that community, but the overall assemblage of species tells a stronger story. When you consistently encounter species that occur within multiple habitats (Ozark woodlands, glades, and/or prairies), which is true for most of the species shown in these photos, it may be a telltale sign of the missing connection between all of those communities. Similar to the previously mentioned glade coneflower, both downy gentian and the upland white goldenrod are commonly found in glades and open woodlands. They tend to fall out in areas with >60% shade. Almost all of these species are considered highly conservative; species that we expect to maintain high fidelity to intact ecosystems. Missouri is one of the states that maintains a coefficient of conservatism list, with values ranging from 0 to 10, where 9-10s are virtually only found in the highest quality habitats. For example, the downy gentian, white upland goldenrod, savanna blazing star, and southern prairie aster are all c=9 species. Most of the grasses are 4 or 5, as well as the prairie dock, prairie blazing star, and Canada lousewort. When visiting a natural community, generally the more intact, remnant sites boast a bell curve of c-values, with the peak being a good diversity of c = 4-6 species. The distinctive composition at this site, with conservative prairie and glade species present (yet located deep in the Ozarks in an area not considered historic prairie), triggers the savanna vibe.

Photo 4. Savanna blazing star (Liatris scariosa var. nieuwlandii), wild quinine, big bluestem, and ashy sunflower. Savanna blazing star is currently listed as a species of conservation concern in Missouri.
Photo 5. Southern prairie aster (Eurybia hemispherica, old name Aster paludosus), forms a colony with leaves reminiscent of a graminoid until it blooms with striking purple discs.

An additional, striking character of this site is the height of the vegetation (Photos 6 and 7). In particular, Photo 6 includes a species called ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis). Various botanists and restorationists have used disparaging terms for this species, even the socially problematic term “thuggish,” since this species tends to form thick 2-4 foot tall monocultures to the detriment of other species. Surprisingly, the ashy sunflower at this site is a whopping 0.5 – 1 foot high and comfortably interwoven with other species. The matrix grasses, consisting of mostly of big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) are consistently knee-high or shorter, barring their flowering stems of around 5 feet. In many prairie reconstructions, the big bluestem and Indian grass commonly attain heights of more than 9 feet and encountering each clump of bunchgrass is like climbing up a small mima mound. Here, the grass ramets have presumably reached old age and no longer exhibit the mounding character. Many ecologists attribute the presence of hemi-parasitic species like Canada lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis), scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), or blue hearts (c=10!, Buchnera americana) to decreased robustness of warm season grasses. All three of these hemiparasitic species are present at this site, yet the truth is that the science of ecology is still learning about what actually makes remnant sites look consistently different than reconstructed sites. Is it nutrient limitation, due to all niches being occupied in remnants? Maybe it’s mycorrhizal associations determining community composition and structure, since Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi have been shown to strongly affect plant communities. What about beneficial or pathogenic bacteria, or soil structure, maybe parent material, or surely it’s the site’s aspect and moisture profiles? The obvious answer is that it’s a combination, and that we have much to learn about our natural communities. The quote by J. K. Rowling, “Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery,” might as easily have been about natural communities as it was directed at Harry Potter’s life.

Photo 6. Upland white goldenrod/prairie goldenrod (Oligoneuron album) blooms amongst two Silphium species, prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata), and well-mannered ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis) stems. Rarely is the term well-mannered used in conjunction with ashy sunflower.
Photo 7. Downy gentian (Gentiana puberulenta) looking disheveled prior to its glorious frost-triggered blooms, amidst prairie dock, prairie blazing star, and a grass/sedge matrix. A dominant sedge species here is few-flowered nut rush (Scleria pauciflora).

The last point regarding vegetative species groups are those considered woodland species. Just like in prairies and glades, there are a handful of woodland indicator species that assist with identification of the natural community we call a woodland in Missouri. As a reminder, woodlands have a canopy cover of >30%, all the way up to 90% cover, yet have an open mid-story maintained most commonly with frequent fire. Some characteristic species present at this site that are considered common woodland indicators include deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum), Samson’s snakeroot (Orbexilum pedunculatum), and stiff aster (Ionactis lineariifolia). The last species is especially striking, as botanists and plant geeks commonly observe it in acidic, poor-nutrient woodlands or power line rights-of-way. Yet keep in mind that glade coneflower, a known calciphile, is hanging out with the stiff aster. Whatever processes are allowing this site to host such a mish-mash of Ozark woodland, glade, and prairie flora, it seems to support the understudied idea that there really was a thriving prairie-forest ecotone amongst these aged hills.

Photo 8. Prairie willow in the foreground left (Salix humilis), vying for growing space with prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), tall tickseed (Coreopsis tripteris), little-leaf tick trefoil (Desmodium ciliare), and others.

Wrapping Up

As outlined above, there are few to no known savannas left in Missouri. While many agencies are trying valiantly to re-create open or closed woodlands, the sawdust of Missouri’s logging culture weighs heavily on our boots and generally there are fewer restoration practitioners aiming for savannas and their lack of timber products. The Nature Conservancy comes to mind, but the majority of their sites classify as true prairie, except maybe Bennett Spring Savanna. That site, like Ha Ha Tonka State Park, tends to maintain characteristics more similar to open woodland, but has lovely intact ground flora with a solid assemblage of prairie species. The critical missing piece is that for most natural community restorations, we have a goal in mind, dictated and informed by multiple examples of that community. With savannas and the lack of high-quality examples, we are left with a great deal more speculation. The hope mentioned in the beginning comes into play with each of you. There is a plethora of private lands that are largely inaccessible to state and federal biologists. If you get a chance to visit a friend’s farm, do so with a thought to some of the characteristics described above. Citizen science really does work, and maybe the next branch of citizen science is natural community identification! As Rachel Carson said, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”