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14.4: Maintaining Complex and Adaptive Ecosystems

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    Even when monitoring data show that an ecosystem is healthy, management is often required to maintain those desired conditions. That is because very few ecosystems are completely free of human influences. For example, rivers and streams carry pollutants far beyond the point of contamination and roads acting as firebreaks suppress natural fire regimes. Today, even the most isolated patches of habitats may not be completely protected from the influences of global processes such as climate change. To maintain complex and adaptive ecosystems, conservation biology is guided by four complementary management principles: (1) maintain ecosystem processes, (2) minimize external threats, (3) be adaptive, and (4) be minimally intrusive.

    Maintaining critical ecosystem processes

    Ecologists generally divide ecosystem processes into four disparate yet interdependent categories: water cycling, nutrient cycling (which include the carbon and nitrogen cycle), energy flow, and community dynamics. The linkages between these processes create feedback loops, where changes in one factor may be amplified elsewhere. Maintaining ecosystem processes is thus very important because small, seemingly small, changes can have major impacts on biological communities.

    The water cycle

    The water cycle refers to the distribution of water through an ecosystem, and includes the absorption and distribution of water vapor, rainwater, and surface water in lakes, rivers, and oceans. Since much of the water cycle happens out of sight and is generally associated with large-scale phenomena, such as weather patterns and anthropogenic climate change, land managers sometimes fail to recognize how local factors influence the water cycle. This is a grave mistake; many deadly ecological disasters (e.g. desertification, flooding, and landslides) can be attributed to disturbances to the water cycle at the local scale.

    Outside of ensuring sustainable use of water resources, maintaining vegetation cover arguably plays the most important role in preserving the water cycle at local scales. Plants and their roots enable soil to store and release water, and make these water reserves available for soil organisms, which in turn aid in decomposition of dead plants and animals. In contrast, a loss of vegetation cover increases surface runoff, which leads to deteriorating soil conditions through nutrient leaching and erosion of fertile topsoil. An increasing number of studies have also shown how forest loss can change a region’s climate by reducing rainfall which in turn exacerbates drought conditions (Lawrence and Vandecar, 2015). For example, forest clearing for agriculture has reduced rainfall by 50% over much of West Africa (Garcia-Carreras and Parker, 2011). Many forest restoration programs thus focus on reversing these losses.

    When restoring degraded forests and other ecosystems to repair the water cycle and other ecosystem services, it is important to remember that complex ecosystems with locally-adapted plants are generally the most effective in maintaining the water cycle and other ecosystem services (Burton et al., 2017).

    The nutrient cycle

    The nutrient cycle involves the cycling of essential nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus through the ecosystem. Like the water cycle, natural vegetation cover plays an important role in maintaining the nutrient cycle. That is because plant roots slow water runoff which, in turn, help soil to retain nutrients dissolved in water. Plants also form a major component of above-ground and below-ground biomass. When dead plant biomass is decomposed along with animal waste products, nutrients previously absorbed through plant roots are released back into the soil and water, where they can once again be absorbed by living plants and other consumers.

    Unfortunately, vegetation cover, decomposition, and fire dynamics (discussed below) alone cannot ensure a healthy nutrient cycle. Much land is nutrient impoverished because soil nutrients are lost quicker than they are replaced. One of the main causes is unsustainable agricultural practices (Sanchez, 2010), such as farming on sandy soils and in tropical forests. These areas are nutrient-poor, so crop yields are typically low. Because these areas are prone to leaching, a large proportion of synthetic fertilizers added to supplement impoverished soils leaches into groundwater or washes into nearby streams and lakes, threatening water supplies by causing harmful algae blooms and eutrophication. To compensate, the failing farmers may resort to even more unsustainable land conversions (Wallenfang et al., 2015). Careful management of the nutrient cycle is thus critical for both biodiversity conservation and socio-economic well-being, particularly given its importance to food security (Drechsel et al., 2001). To achieve this, there is an urgent need to adopt more sustainable land management practices.

    Ecosystem processes are linked into multiple feedback loops, so changes in one factor are amplified elsewhere.

    Energy flow

    Energy flow—a crucial component of ecosystem productivity —refers to the capture and storage of solar energy by primary producers (photosynthetic plants, algae, and some bacteria), and the distribution of that energy to consumers, detritivores, and decomposers. Although solar energy can appear as an unlimited resource in many ecosystems, the energy available to consumers (i.e. herbivores and carnivores) is limited because only about 10% of the energy obtained at one trophic level is passed on to the next (Figure 14.4.1). Being at the top of the food chain, apex predators are in a particularly vulnerable position because seemingly small disruptions at lower trophic levels will have a cumulative impact on the energy available to them. Such disruptions may include reduced prey populations (e.g. overharvesting of herbivores) or foraging disruptions (e.g. a predator needing to walk further to find prey). Maintaining energy flow generally involves maintaining complex, species-rich ecosystems so that consumers have ample opportunities to fulfill their energy needs for finding prey, growth, reproduction, and other activities.

    Figure 14.4.1 A food pyramid of a model savannah ecosystem, showing the various trophic levels and energy pathways. About 90% of energy is lost at each trophic level through respiration and animal waste excretion.CC BY 4.0.

    Community dynamics

    In ecosystem conservation, maintaining viable populations of different interacting species is as important as maintaining important ecosystem processes, such as ecosystem productivity and ecological succession. This focus often falls on maintaining populations that form part of important mutualistic relationships such as pollination and seed dispersal, predator-prey interactions, and even healthy levels of competitive and parasitic interactions (which allow more species to persist). Of interest is the preservation of keystone species and ecosystem engineers, which has an outsized effect on community dynamics. As illustrated in this, and other, chapters, disrupting community dynamics through pollution, overharvesting, or any other threat facing biodiversity, generally leads to impoverished natural communities. Impoverished communities may in turn provide opportunities for invasive species to colonize an area, further perpetuating biodiversity losses.

    Fire Dynamics

    Although fire is generally not considered one of the four fundamental ecosystem processes, it plays such an important role in biodiversity management, including maintaining the four fundamental ecosystem processes, that it deserves its own discussion. Burning existing vegetation releases carbon and other essential nutrients beneficial for plant growth into the environment. Similarly, fire also plays a critical role in the flow of energy, community dynamics, and overall maintenance of fire-dependent ecosystems, such as grasslands, savannahs, and Mediterranean communities. Suitably low intensity fires seldom kill living plants; rather, they encourage seed germination and seedling growth by reducing dead material that may crowd new growth, by exposing bare mineral soil (the substrate required for many seeds to germinate), and by releasing vital nutrients into the soil. This periodic removal of dead material also prevents fuel load accumulation, thereby preventing future fires from becoming destructive. In contrast, without fire, fire-dependent ecosystems will slowly transform into unproductive scrublands suffocated by encroaching woody vegetation (Smit and Prins, 2015). Then, when wildfires do occur (e.g. through human negligence or lightning) the resultant accumulated fuel loads increase the intensity and heat of fires, creating very dangerous and difficult to control scenarios.

    Obviously, given the potentially destructive force of fire, land managers who use fire as a management tool must consider many aspects before setting a prescribed burn, also known as a controlled burn (Figure 14.4.2). Foremost, to prevent a fire from becoming destructive to natural communities and nearby human developments, burning must be done in a well-planned manner with careful consideration given to the area’s ecology, weather forecasts, and fire-readiness of the site (Goldammer and de Ronde, 2004; Kelly and Brotons, 2017).

    Figure 14.4.2 A fire crew from the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona set and manage a prescribed fire. The fire is intended to mimic natural periodic fire and reduce fuels, keeping the forest ecosystem healthy. (Photo by David Hercher, US Forest Service, Southwestern Region, Kaibab National Forest, from Flickr CC BY 2.0).

    Fire management plans that match natural fire regimes produce the best results for effective ecosystem management. Land managers accomplish this by ensuring that their burn plans mimic the local area’s natural fire season, fire frequency, and flame intensity, while also accounting for management goals and local ecological factors such as rainfall and geology (see e.g. van Wilgen et al., 2010, 2014). The size of each burn area must also be considered. Best practices suggest not burning the entirety of a community at a time; rather, burning only portions of an area allows for more habitat heterogeneity, provides opportunities for non-burrowing animals to take refuge in unburned areas, and maximizes ecosystem diversity. However, because of the high density of houses in some ecosystems, the periodic fires needed for locally-adapted vegetation to persist are often extinguished because of the threat to human settlement (van Wilgen et al., 2012).

    While fire plays an important role in many landscapes, it is important to note that overly frequent fires can be a threat even to fire-dependent communities. For example, habitat degradation resulting from too many fires in quick succession can leave a natural community vulnerable to invasions by harmful species (Masocha et al., 2011). Overly frequent fires can also prevent seedling recruitment by directly killing vulnerable young plants, and by depleting the seed bank because seedlings do not have sufficient time to mature and set seed.

    Fire-sensitive ecosystems (e.g. tropical forests, high mountains, and peat bogs) must also be managed carefully to avoid fire disturbance, which can lead to habitat loss and edge effects. One way to accomplish this is to educate farmers living adjacent to fire-sensitive ecosystems on how to safely manage their land with fire. Careful fire management, led by good science, is bound to become increasingly important in the future, given that wildfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense under climate change (Pricope and Binford, 2012).

    Minimizing external threats

    Human activity cannot and does not need to be eliminated from nature; in fact, the structure and diversity of many of today’s natural landscapes—and to which today’s wildlife are adapted to—are in part the result of past human activities (e.g. Garcin et al., 2018). Today, there are over 7 billion people on Earth, so our impacts are more pervasive than for the majority of history. There is, thus, an urgent need to utilize natural resources in such a way that future generations will also benefit from the ecosystem services that previous generations have left us. This requires a concerted effort from every sector in human society to minimize those threats we impose on the ecosystems around us. This includes preventing pollution, large-scale human disturbances, overharvesting, and habitat destruction.

    Major strides have been made in recent years towards achieving these goals. Governments are updating laws to safeguard the environment, industries are refining recycling and waste disposal methods, new techniques are being developed to remove pollutants from the environment, and individual citizens are becoming more aware of their individually small but collectively significant impacts on the environment. We should be proud of the progress being made and continue to strive for improvements. But one external threat that requires greater attention and understanding is invasive species.

    Controlling invasive species

    Invasive species degrade and destroy natural ecosystems by outcompeting native species, disturbing ecosystem processes, and altering the physical environment. Limiting these harmful impacts can be particularly challenging since exotic species that establish themselves in a new area can build up such large numbers, become so widely dispersed, and be so thoroughly integrated into ecosystems (i.e. naturalized) that eradicating them entirely would be extraordinarily difficult and expensive, or as in the case of tickberry (Lantana camara) perhaps even impossible (Bhagwat et al., 2012). This is not only a problem facing conservation biology, but also agriculture, where invasive species often spread from one farm to another, forestry, where invasive species are spread between saw mills and along logging routes, and fisheries, where native resources are outcompeted, sometimes up-ending an entire local industry. The impact of invasive species on farming communities is particularly severe—they lose tens of billions of dollars each year while trying to combat deteriorating grazing lands, reduced crop yields, and escalating pest control expenses.

    Because invasive species are often very hard to eradicate once established, the foremost step in avoiding invasive species’ harmful impacts is to avoid opportunities for new invasions. This requires raising awareness across all levels of society about the dangers posed by invasive species, both to the natural world and to agricultural and natural resources systems. There is also a need for citizens, scientists, and industry to monitor for potential and known invasive species, and promptly implement intensive control efforts to stop establishment and spread. Florida citizens are asked to report sightings of the Burmese python, which is disrupting the Florida Everglade ecosystem (Figure 14.4.3) These pythons are thought to have originated as released or escaped pets but have now increased substantially in numbers. The Global Register of Introduced and Invasive Species ( is a free, online searchable source to facilitate these tasks, by providing information about the impact and control of invasive species. Governments can also partake in efforts to control invasive species. While most African countries screen agricultural imports for pests, countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, take this task particularly seriously, with trained officials screening each visitor (and returning residents) and package for hitchhiking species before they cross those countries’ borders. Lastly, it would require increased dialogue between conservation biologists and land managers to make a careful and thorough assessment prior to the deliberate introduction of a new species, even if thought of as beneficial.

    Figure 14.4.3: The Burmese python, Python molurus bivittatus, native to southeast Asia, has been introduced to the Florida Everglades where it has led to significant declines in animal populations on which it preys including wood storks, Key Largo woodrats and bobcats. The pythons also compete with native predators for habitat and food. (Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service, via Wiki commons, CC-BY-2.0)

    Despite best practices, not all invasions can be prevented, and for those that do occur, an early detection and rapid response strategy offers the best chance to limit harm. This usually involves raising awareness of potential invasive species to ensure biologists and other stakeholders will recognize a new invasion, efforts to screen for such species on a regular basis, and implementing direct attack approaches, such as using herbicides, pesticides, or mechanical control once detected. While addressing a new invasion as soon as possible, it is also important to consider and contain the risks each direct attack approach carries. For example, herbicides and pesticides carry a risk of killing non-target native species via pesticide drift, while mechanical control may cause disturbances such as trampling, undue soil disturbance, and even pollution.

    Another method to manage established pests is biological control, also called biocontrol. Biocontrol typically relies on one or more natural enemies from an invasive species’ original range to control the pest in its introduced range. One of the main benefits of biocontrol is that it ensures cost-effective, long-term, area-wide control of an invasive species, beyond the capabilities of chemical pesticides and mechanical control. Biocontrol also allows for opportunities to control invasive species that are hard to manage with chemical pesticides and mechanical control (at least without significant additional harm to the environment), such as submerged aquatic weeds (Coetzee et al., 2011). Third, biocontrol agents are highly host-specific, thereby eliminating the impact that chemical pesticides and mechanical control have on non-target organisms. Lastly, an effective biocontrol agent ideally eliminates the need for chemical pesticides and mechanical control, thereby reducing threats such as pesticide pollution and ecosystem degradation.

    Biocontrol does have some drawbacks. Primary among them is the significant upfront investment required, as candidate species first need to be found, and then extensively tested for host specificity and potential interactions with native wildlife before being released. Biocontrol also requires careful monitoring after release to determine effectiveness as well as to carefully check for impacts on non-target native species. This monitoring needs to be conducted over the long term, because biocontrol agents typically require several years before they establish self-sufficient colonies in the wild and might only then show signs of unintended impacts. Because alternative methods for controlling invasive species can also kill biocontrol agents (causing conflicting results and wasted resources), additional coordination is required before applying biocontrol and alternative pest management strategies simultaneously in the same area. Lastly, there is no guarantee that a biocontrol agent will be effective.

    While the most popular biocontrol agents generally involve insects, disease-causing pathogens can also be used for biocontrol. Feline panleukopenia virus (also known as feline distemper) was highly effective in managing a feral cat population that caused the extirpation of seabirds on Sub-Antarctic Marion Island; some birds are now even returning as breeders (Bester et al., 2002). In an effort to reduce the use of chemical pesticides on food crops, efforts are also currently underway to find fungal pathogens to control introduced pests impacting African crops, including pea leafminers (Liriomyza huidobrensis), originally from South America (Akutse et al., 2013), and banana weevils (Cosmopolites sordidus), originally from Southeast Asia (Akello et al., 2008).

    Some of the most effective pest control programs use an integrated pest management (IPM) approach that relies on using multiple pest control methods described above either simultaneously or in succession (van Wyk and van Wilgen, 2002). Strategic planning to coordinate best practices can also help offset some of the costs of invasive species control (Rahlao et al., 2010) and ensure that important pest sources are not missed (van Wilgen et al., 2007). When considering the best method to control an invasive species, it may also help to consider how our own actions inadvertently encourage invasive species. For example, an over-reliance on synthetic fertilizer has been shown to cause eutrophication (Chislock et al., 2013) and encourage growth of aquatic invasive plants (Coetzee and Hill, 2012; Bownes et al., 2012).

    This page titled 14.4: Maintaining Complex and Adaptive Ecosystems is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Wilson & Richard B. Primack (Open Book Publishers) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.