Theory of ‘smart’ plants may explain the evolution of global ecosystems

“It’s easy to think of plants as passive features of their environments, doing as the land prescribes, serving as a backdrop to the bustling animal kingdom.

“But what if the ecosystems of the world take their various forms because plant “decisions” make them that way? A new theory presented by Princeton University researchers in the journal Nature Plants suggests that in some cases that may be exactly what happens. In one of the first global theories of land-biome evolution, the researchers write that plants may actively behave in ways that not only benefit themselves but also determine the productivity and composition of their environs.

“Our theory explains biomes based on the new idea that we must consider plants to be smart and strategic,” said senior author Lars Hedin, a Princeton professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and department chair. “This is a global theory that explains why biomes differ in nutrient conditions and in their abilities to respond to disturbances and to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”  From:

GR:  This article by reputable scientists and published by a reputable journal troubles me. Thinking back to J.P. Grime’s book “Plant Strategies and Vegetation,” I wonder if the authors simply overlooked relevant literature when the proposed and then interpreted their research.  Adding more life-history variations to Grime’s work would be preferable to striking out on an independent course to rediscover Grime’s ideas. This interpretive remark by one of the authors is especially troubling:   “Tropical nitrogen-fixing plants are smart enough to know when to use costly nitrogen fixation to compete with neighboring plants, and when to turn it off, as if they are sentient beings,” Hedin said.

Frederick E. Clements had edged toward the idea that vegetation behaved as an organism as it matured. I believe H. A. Gleason demolished this idea quite well in his 1926 paper:  “The Individualistic Concept of the Plant Association” (Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club).


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Let’s Start Caring About Kelp and Seagrass Like We Care About Rainforest

GR:  Kelp and seagrass form critical habitats within marine ecosystems.  Both grow in shallow water where they serve as essential habitat for animals, and important nutrient recyclers.  Compared to terrestrial vegetation, we know little about these vegetation types.  Biogeographers have mapped general distributions, but they have not made detailed maps of species associations.

Kelp Forest Distribution (Woodward,

Kelp Forest Distribution (Woodward,

Seagrass vegetation/number of species

The seagrass vegetation map accompanies a report on the decline of seagrass due to pesticides washing from the land into the ocean.  The infographic below shows the distribution of seagrass genera in various habitats.  The authors point out that there have been few attempts to restore destroyed seagrass meadows.  Most attempts have failed.

reports on seagrass, and notes that it is disappearing at the same rate as the rainforest and coral reefs. The loss equals serious environmental and economic effects  (

As in the case of terrestrial vegetation decline, a process called desertification, not much is being done to stop seagrass and kelp declines.  More is needed, and as I learn about restoration efforts I will report them here.  Meantime, the best we can do is try to block pesticide use and chemical fertilizer use on land.

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How should “Flathead National Forest 2.0” look?

Montana’s Flathead Forest is one of the most biologically diverse areas of our country, but it needs some work to become more effective for conservation.

“In the northwestern corner of Montana just next to Glacier National Park sits the 2.4 million acre Flathead National Forest. It’s a part of the massive and biodiverse “Crown of the Continent” ecosystem, and is part of a broader collection of protected areas stretching all the way down to Yellowstone. It’s home to more than one thousand native plant species, 70 mammals, and 260 birds. It’s home to iconic American megafauna, like grizzly bears and grey wolves, along with mountain lions, wolverines, lynx, and fishers.

“Starting in the 1930s, concerned citizens and government officials have worked to protect this region, and while it remains mostly unaffected by development, it is starting to suffer the effects of climate change. As glaciers disappear from nearby Glacier National Park, the region will see warmer winters and summers, decreasing snowpack, earlier spring melts, reduced stream flows, and a longer, more severe wildfire season. The animals there will increasingly need more space to roam as their food sources and habitats change with the climate.”