Monday, December 16, 2013

Shifting ecosystems

The following is guest post by Carson Langston, a senior at Clemson University enrolled in Dr. Barrett's Creative Inquiry course focused on amphibian conservation.

As society continues to grow and develop we face new challenges of conserving and protecting ecosystems throughout the world. Ecosystems are fragile and dynamic. There is no recipe to construct, maintain, or restore ecosystems, making conservation and preservation invaluable tools to steward the earth.  Even though we may never fully understand how development has shifted ecosystems we can observe the effects of our past actions and discern better plans for the future.  One amazing example of the effects of development over the past 300 years or so is documented in Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1729-1747). Catesby describes salmon spawning and large numbers of bears coming to feast in a place that seems to be close to where Clemson is today.

As we look forward we are in need of indicators that provide signals as to the damage caused by development. Amphibians are one of the key pieces of evidence that we are able to use to measure the effects of development. Amphibians are such wonderful bio-indicators because they are relatively fragile.  Cutaneous respiration allows amphibians to exist within a unique niche of aquatic and terrestrial life, while this is an amazing feat it does not come without complications. Essentially breathing through their skin, amphibians are much more prone to changes in their environments. Changes in water temperature, pH, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and the presence of heavy metals have the potential to decrease the size of the niches that these animals fill.

While on a recent survey of salamanders at the Coweeta Biological Station in Western North Carolina I began to question the rates of habitat destruction in such a short period of time.  To see the effects of development across the world in the past 300 years is staggering. There are few places that we can travel to without seeing the effects of human’s work on this planet. With the population at such a high level and our habits of resource consumption at an all time high, there is an urgent need to understand all of the harmful effects development may cause to our ecosystems. Even in this remote location that we were surveying, the effects of shifting ecosystems were present.  During the survey, plant species were inventoried within their respective plots and these data were collected for analysis of the stream. While reviewing the data I started to question what changes have taken place here in the past 100 years and our data began to provide clues a shifting ecosystem. The American Chestnut is gone, 90% of the eastern Hemlocks that we inventoried were dead. This change is well documented throughout the Southeast and we know that the loss of these two dominant canopy trees can be attributed to by human activities.  Even though this is a broad and general example it provides clarity that our actions and decisions have great consequence. The cascading effects of losing two dominant canopy trees within such a small time has dyer consequences to life that requires such specific conditions for survival.

Thinking back to when Mark Catesby once explored this area we have to wonder that if our streams were in such wonderful conditions that allowed salmon to spawn this far north, what amphibians were in those streams and how many have we lost due to the effects of dams, pollution, and other activities of development.  With development rolling forward, will we adopt strategies that help us to invest in our limited resources for the future or will we continue to turn a blind eye. Man is capable of living more sustainable lifestyles and just as the cascading effects of a species loss works, increased implementation of sustainable development will yield results that we can be proud of.

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