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California's Abundant Transitional Ecosystems | Ecological Gradients

California's diverse ecosystem of subsystems provide constant access to rich biodiversity havens, and opportunities for green careers, and green solutions.

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I've always been fascinated at the changes between ecosystems -- transition zones -- or as they are called in the scientific world, "ecological gradients".

California is such a diverse ecosystem of subsystems that we have constant access to discovering these rich biodiversity havens.

Yes, ecological gradients are THE most biodiverse of all habitats!

A letter from the director of the Los Angeles based Center for tropical Research describes why these transitional ecosystems are so important in this age of climate change. The unifying goal of the scientists at the Center for Tropical Research (CTR) is to understand the biotic processes that underlie and maintain the diversity of life in the tropics and to advance conservation efforts that protect endangered species and habitats.

UCLA Center for Tropical Research

Letter from the Director

Our feature article in this Fall’s CTR Newsletter, by Adam Freedman, discusses CTR’s efforts to understand the implications of losing ecological gradients. While the impacts of habitat destruction and climate change are well known, and are on every conservation group’s radar screen, the loss of environmental gradients is not.

What are ecological gradients? The gradient described in the feature article occurs between the African savanna and rainforest, but gradients occur on every continent. For instance, our researchers are studying the gradient along the slope of the Andes in Ecuador. In this region, as you move from the lowlands to the highlands, populations of species change in both morphology and physiology. Populations at higher elevations are typically better adapted to colder temperatures than those at lower elevations.

Such gradients are also common in North America. They include the south-to-north transition from the eastern deciduous forests of the central United States to the boreal forests of northern Minnesota and Canada, and the elevational gradients in the Sierra Nevada mountains that extend from the Mohave Desert to the alpine environments of the Sierra’s crest.

Why are gradients important and what do we risk if we lose them? Essentially, the adaptive variation that is embodied in populations along gradients is like money in the bank as we struggle to address the impacts of climate change. By preserving gradients, one maximizes the amount of adaptive variation that is available. With the onslaught of climate change, scientists do not know what conditions to expect and how populations will respond. Given these uncertainties, the best strategy is to protect gradients, thereby preserving variation. Unfortunately, our recent research in Central and West Africa suggests gradients are disappearing and, as a consequence, populations are losing critical variation.

In the words of Aldo Leopold, the father of conservation biology, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” We need to get the message out that protecting environmental gradients is critical in the age of climate change.

Thomas B. Smith, Ph.D.
UCLA Center for Tropical Research

The study and management of these precious ecosystems that are teaming with life and evolving strategies can both teach us a lot about what we as business people and policy makers can do, need to do, and what we can learn from nature's systems strategies to change with change.

Over the past twenty years, CTR researchers have produced evidence that in rainforests worldwide, for a wide range of taxa, the processes of diversification and speciation take place not only within “biodiversity hotspots,” but also along environmental gradients. Gradients are the observable changes in environmental conditions across a landscape. At different locations along a gradient, individuals of a species are exposed to different environmental conditions. These gradients are characterized not only by the features that comprise them (e.g., temperature, precipitation, and habitat structure), but also by the rate at which these features change between locations, usually described as their slope. writes Adam Freedman in his article about rainforests. Many of these same observations about changing habitat apply to the deserts and wetlands and mountains of our own local ecosystems.

There are many green careers embedded in this approach to habitat study and management. Landscaping. Agriculture. Natural resources management. Forestry. Biology. Integrated Pest Management. Soil conservation. Native plant nurseries. Tourism. And the list goes on.

Research is sometimes more elemental than applied practitioners in business and communities can deal with directly -- but lifelong education about what is being learned and tested in science can help us make better decisions, more innovative solutions, and a more stable natural system in which all lifeforms can thrive.

Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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