The extinction crisis is far worse than you think

GR:  This CNN Photo/Video/Data essay has high-quality images and interviews.  Recommended.

“Frogs, coral, elephants — all are on the brink. Three quarters of species could disappear. Why is this happening? CNN explores an unprecedented global crisis.” –CNN (Continue:  The extinction crisis is far worse than you think)

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)

Humboldt’s Importance

Alexander von Humboldt was the most influential man of his age.  His contributions helped unify our understanding of nature and how human alterations could lead to dangerous changes.  Heads of government, scientists, engineers, artists, and authors were inspired by and consulted with him on a range of topics. Around the world, there are more cities, parks, mountains, and rivers named for Humboldt than anyone else that ever lived.

 Dr. Ulloa Ulloa (front, left) and field assistants at the Humboldt statue on Chimborazo in 2009.

Dr. Ulloa Ulloa (front, left) and field assistants at the Humboldt statue on Chimborazo in 2009.

Humboldt’s strengths were his curiosity, his tireless desire to record his experiences, his ability to see connections, and his ability to write about objective facts with lyrical prose.  He described nature as a web of life, noting and mapping the plant and animal changes with elevation on Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador a century before C. Hart Merriam mapped life zones in central Arizona.  He invented isotherms, the lines on maps connecting areas of equal temperatures, and he warned that human destruction of nature was having widespread consequences.  He described the drop in stream flow, lake level, and general climate change resulting from cutting forests and diverting streams for monoculture farming.  Humboldt influenced and inspired Goethe, Darwin, Hooker, Bolivar, Thoreau, Muir, and many more.  Without Humboldt’s books, Darwin might never have gone to sea, South America might have remained a slave-holding Spanish colony for another century, and nature conservation might have lagged even farther behind human alteration of the land.

Humboldt1805-chimborazo-live zones

Humboldt’s zonal flora and fauna map of Chimborazo.

I am delighted to report that my grandson born in October, 2014 bears the name Alexander.  Alex’s birthplace is just 15 miles west of my home in Humboldt, AZ.

The essay introduced below provides links to some the books by and about Humboldt.  The one by Andrea Wulf is one of my all-time favorite biographical works.

Humboldt and Bonpland’s Essai sur la géographie des plantes and its significance

By: Randy Smith, Image Technician | Metadata Librarian. Peter H. Raven Library, Missouri Botanical Garden

“Over 210 years after Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland’s work titled Essai sur la géographie des plantes was published, climate science, book conservation, and botanical research have converged around this 1805 work. This book was digitized and made available in 2008 by the Missouri Botanical Garden for the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Modern science meets historic data

“In 2015, scientists published a paper detailing their findings as they retraced the path that Humboldt and Bonpland took on their ascent up the dormant volcano, Chimborazo, in Ecuador. The paper, “Strong upslope shifts in Chimborazo’s vegetation over two centuries since Humboldt,” utilized the data and map contained in Essai sur la géographie des plantes and presented modern data from the same locations as detailed in Essai to reveal the effects of climate change on the volcano.

“As Stephen T. Jackson writes in the 2009 book, Essay on the geography of plants, the significance of Humboldt and Bonpland’s work describing their ascent up Chimborazo lies in the detailed data they collected at various elevations. Jackson and historian Andrea Wulf have noted that while most people have forgotten Humboldt, his significance in unifying early scientific disciplines into an inter-connected web of life cannot be understated. Measurements taken on Chimborazo include light intensity, temperature, barometric pressure, and gravitational force. Descriptions of the flora and fauna at various levels of Chimborazo were described and illustrated on the map contained with Essai sur la géographie des plantes.”  Continue reading.

Rethinking assessment of biodiversity in northern New Zealand forests: Incorporating lichens, a neglected but important group, in vegetation monitoring

The Australia & Pacific Science Foundation is supporting an @UnitecNZ biodiversity project    from:

GR:  Information on distribution, numbers, and trends is lacking for many species groups.  This project aims to add information for New Zealand forest lichens.  Many similar projects are needed worldwide.

Rapid version of assessment tool provides easier way to monitor wetland quality

A modified or ‘rapid’ version of an existing wetland assessment tool can accurately assess the quality of wetlands, according to researchers. Using the rapid version of the tool, known as the Floristic Quality Assessment Index, can save time and improve upon wetland monitoring strategies.

GR:  This article gives citizen naturalists tools for assessing the health of their neighboring wetlands.

Sonoran Desert Fire Ecology Update

Post-Fire Recovery in the Arizona Upland of the Sonoran Desert

Fire-prone invasive plants fueled fires that converted this formerly diverse Sonoran Desert landscape of small trees and tall Saguaro cactus into an impoverished shrubland.

Fire-prone invasive plants fueled fires that converted this formerly diverse Sonoran Desert landscape of small trees and tall Saguaro cactus into an impoverished shrubland.

By Garry Rogers.

The Sonoran Desert’s diverse vegetation of small round trees, tall cacti, and understory shrubs is remarkably beautiful. I was fortunate to spend my early career studying the desert. One of my projects involved wildfire.

Following fires in 1974, my classmate Jeff Steele and I used repeated observations of permanent plots and transects to measure fire-related adaptive responses of perennial plant species and communities.  We expected to find that desert plants were recovering by sprouting from unburned roots and stems and from seeds buried in the soil.  We expected this because of the “fire is natural” rebellion that was opposing traditional “Smokey the Bear” fire suppression efforts.  We wanted to be rebels too.  What we found was that positive adaptations that would allow recovery after burning were common, but they were weak.  Most plants just burned to death and stayed dead.  Return of the original plant community was taking place very slowly.  We projected that several decades would be required for full recovery.

After we published the initial results, both sites burned again.  We repeated our observations of the plots and transects several times.  In 2008, I reported that 22 years after the second fires, recovery had not occurred (Turner et al. 2010).  Only a few fast-growing members of the original plant community had returned, and large numbers of fire-prone invasive alien plants occupied both sites.  A brief inspection in 2015 indicated that conditions had not improved.  It appears unlikely that the original diverse vegetation dominated by tall Saguaro Cacti and round green Paloverde trees will ever return.  Fighting fires in the desert was the right strategy.

Perhaps no fire in the Sonoran Desert has been natural since the introduction and spread of exotic annuals.  Both frequency and intensity have increased.

Climate Change and Desert Fire

The lengthening drought in the region occupied by the Sonoran Desert is accelerating the replacement of the original plant communities by fire-prone weeds. Weed landscapes are spreading and fires are becoming more frequent. Watching the disappearance of the original complex desert vegetation is one of my saddest experiences.

  • Citation:  Rogers, Garry, and Jeff Steele.  1980. Sonoran desert fire ecology.  Pages 15-19 in M. A. Stokes and J. H. Dieterich, technical coordinators.  Proceedings of the fire history workshop.  U. S. Forest Service, General Technical Report RM-81.  Link to PDF copy of paper.
  • Reference:  Tuner, Raymond M., Robert H. Webb, Todd C. Esque, Garry Rogers.  2010.  Repeat photography and low elevation fire responses in the southwestern United States. Pages 223-244 in R. H. Webb, D. E. Boyer, and R. M. Turner, eds. Repeat photography methods and applications in the natural sciences. Island Press, Washington, DC. 530 p.

Changes in plant species composition of coastal dune over 20-years

Coastal sandy ecosystems are increasingly being threatened by human pressure, causing loss of biodiversity, habitat degradation and landscape modifications.  Source:

GR:  Coastal development might have slowed during the 20-year period studied.  All the best sites have been built out, and portions of the remnants are protected.

Studies such as this should not be so rare. More frequent monitoring is needed for these sites and for natural habitats of all kinds world wide.