Better predict how plants and animals

image: Trees and other organisms facing air or water flow will experience forces that could bend, break, or dislodge them. By understanding the variables that help resist these forces, as well as air or water speeds, scientists can use an ecomechanical model to make predictions about survival.
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Credit: (Tim Higham / UCR)

A team of scientists have developed a more accurate way to predict the effects of climate change on plants and animals, and whether some will survive.

Frequently, environmentalists assess an organism’s fitness for climate by quantifying its functional traits.

“These are physical properties that you can measure – the height, the diameter, the thickness of a tree,” said Tim Higham, biologist at UC Riverside. “We believe more information is needed to understand how living things will react to a changing world.”

The team, led by Higham, presents an alternative model for researchers in an article published today in the journal Trends in ecology and evolution.

This new model incorporates the functional characteristics of an organism as well as environmental variables, such as temperature, habitat structure and the speed of the wind or water with which an organism interacts. The team calls these “eco-mechanical models”.

As the oceans rise, strong storms will reach further inland. The intensity of hurricanes and the proportion of hurricanes that reach very intense levels are likely to increase with climate change. As a result, Higham said the fluids would exert greater forces on anything in their path. These forces could cause the rupture or uprooting of organisms with roots, such as trees.

“If you measure the functional characteristics of a tree and we know the wind speed, we can predict how much bending will occur,” Higham said. “At certain wind speeds the tree will potentially fall.”

The way the wind disperses seeds, or the way insects and birds fly in strong winds, can potentially influence their suitability. When considering the fate of living things, the physics governing how they move in space is another important factor taken into account by this new framework. In this sense, ecomechanical models are not limited to understanding the impacts of climate change.

“They can help scientists understand evolutionary patterns and how animals interact with their environment differently as they grow,” Higham said.

Environmental conditions can affect the way some animals attach themselves to surfaces. For example, geckos can use their famous adhesive system to attach themselves to smooth surfaces. However, the real world is often not smooth. Therefore, understanding how geckos attach themselves requires knowledge of both the functional traits of the animal and the texture of the environment, for example.

In order to facilitate the use of this model by many types of scientists, the research team encourages the expansion of freely available online databases in which the functional traits of organisms have been described in a uniform and standardized manner.

This work spanned years, the product of a task force funded by the National Science Foundation. The group is made up of 24 scientists from Arizona State University; Claremont Colleges; University of British Columbia; University of Illinois, Clark University; the University of Calgary, the State University of the North of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Rutgers University; University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada; University of Washington; George Washington University; Trinity University; UC Berkeley; Cornell University; Towson University and American Museum of Natural History.

Many participating faculty identify themselves as members of under-represented groups in science. “Including early career professors from a variety of backgrounds and lived experiences was of paramount importance to us when we created the working group,” said Lara Ferry, Biologist and President Professor of Arizona State University. “We know the best results come from the collective contributions of many different perspectives.”

If these recommendations were to be widely adopted, the research team believes that there will be profound impacts on several areas of biology.

“Using eco-mechanical models can help us understand the rules of life,” Higham said.


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