Can North America’s biodiversity be saved? Pam Soltis, professor of botany at the University of Florida believes so.
Pam Soltis, a winner of the Darwin Wallace Medal for her contributions to the understanding of evolutionary sciences, gave her Chautauqua lecture “Transformation and Conservation: Climate Change and the Southern Landscape” in O’Donnell Hall Thursday, Nov. 30.
In her lecture, Soltis argued that the North American landscape is changing faster than ever – a trend she said was a dangerous reality for biodiversity.
“The world’s landscape changing is nothing new, it has always been shifting,” Soltis said.
For example, during the era of Pangea, the world’s continents were melded together.
During this time, there were warm, humid forests across North America. Today, the floristic similarities between eastern Asia and eastern North America, first noted by scientists Carl Linnaeus and Asa Gray, illustrate the connection of the continents, Soltis said.
Continents began to look like they do today 15 million years ago, during the Miocene Era, Soltis said. Then in the Pleistocene Era, 12 million years ago, there was an ice age that pushed North American foliage further south due to ice sheets.
All of these changes happened over a long period of time. However, the transformation of the North American landscape from 1850 to 1920 has progressed much faster, Soltis said.
To illustrate the quick landscape change, Soltis showed the audience maps of “old growth” forests in North America, or forests that have developed over at least 120 years without severe disturbances, such as deforestation or wildfires.
In 1850, old growth forests covered a significant portion of the eastern part of the U.S., Soltis said. By 1920, old growth forests in the region had become wholly decimated.
Soltis then shared maps illustrating the percentage of disturbed sites across North America.
Disturbed habitats are created by roads being built, agricultural areas, logging, and invasive species.
By the 1920s, a significant portion of North America had become classified as highly disturbed.
“Things are going a little bit too fast,” said Soltis.
Extinction rates during this era of change were about 100 to 1000 times higher than normal, said Soltis. She attributed this to environmental changes that are happening too quickly for plants and animals to adapt.
“I know that animals going extinct was a problem, but I didn’t know it was this big,” Lindy Allen, pre-nursing major and EKU junior said. “And I honestly never thought about the extinction of plants.”
Biodiversity is the totality of life on earth, including every single species of plants and animals, Soltis said. So far, there have been approximately 2 million species named. Soltis said this number is only the tip of the iceberg.
New initiatives have been funded in North America to digitize and create databases for the one to two billion biodiverse specimens found within museum collections, said Soltis.
“I was surprised to know that EKU had 75,000 specimens at their herbarium. That seems like a lot,” Allen said.
Soltis said she believes collaboration between all collections of biodiverse specimens across the world is how humans can save biodiversity.
An example that Soltis gave of this collaboration is iDigBio. Within this online database, there are over 105 million specimens on record.
“I’ll definitely go home and check out the iDigBio site tonight. It’ll be a nice break from stressing out about finals,” Allen said.
By using these databases, the range of different species can be found. The optimal thriving conditions can also be found, and optimal growing areas can be mapped out using such data, said Soltis.
Future optimal growing areas can then be projected for years and centuries ahead, Soltis said.
Knowing the optimal growing areas for different plants, she said, can help conservationists plan ahead.
Current conservation efforts only focus on one species at a time, which is not sustainable in the long run, said Soltis.
With the biodiverse databases, models can be created to scale up from a small number of species to a large number of species for conservation efforts to save in an area, Soltis said.
“We can save biodiversity,” Soltis said. “We just have to try.”