In scientists' eyes, each leaf of the northern pitcher plant is a small ecosystem.
Credit: Aaron Ellison
Whether small carnivorous plant or huge lake, both are subject to the same ecological "tipping points," of concern on Earth Day--and every day, say scientists.
The findings are published in this week's issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In the paper, ecologists affiliated with the National Science Foundation (NSF) Harvard Forest Long-Term Ecological Research site in Massachusetts offer new insights about how such tipping points happen.
"Human societies, financial markets and ecosystems all may shift abruptly and unpredictably from one, often favored, state to another less desirable one," says Saran Twombly, program director in NSF's Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research.
"These researchers have looked at the minute ecosystems that thrive in pitcher plant leaves to determine early warning signals and to find ways of predicting and possibly forestalling such 'tipping points.'"
Life in lakes and ponds of all sizes can be disrupted when too many nutrients--such as in fertilizers and pollution--overload the system.
When that happens, these aquatic ecosystems can cross "tipping points" and change drastically. Excess nutrients cause algae to bloom. Bacteria eating the algae use up oxygen in the water. The result is a murky green lake.
"The first step to preventing tipping points is understanding what causes them," says Aaron Ellison, an ecologist at Harvard Forest and co-author of the paper. "For that, you need an experiment where you can demonstrate cause-and-effect."
Ellison and other scientists demonstrated how to reliably trigger a tipping point.
They continually added a set amount of organic matter--comparable to decomposing algae in a lake--to a small aquatic ecosystem: the tiny confines of a pitcher plant, a carnivorous plant native to eastern North America.
Each pitcher-shaped leaf holds about a quarter of an ounce of rainwater. Inside is a complex, multi-level food web of fly larvae and bacteria.
"The pitcher plant is its own little ecosystem," says Jennie Sirota, a researcher at North Dakota State University and lead author of the paper.
Similar to lake ecosystems, oxygen levels inside the water of a pitcher plant are controlled by photosynthesis and the behavior of resident organisms--in this case, mostly bacteria.
Ellison says that conducting an experiment with bacteria is like fast-forwarding through a video.
"A bacterial generation is 20 minutes, maybe an hour," he says. "In contrast, fish in a lake have generation times of a year or more.
"We would need to study a lake for 100 years to get the same information we can get from a pitcher plant in less than a week."
The same mathematical models, Ellison and colleagues discovered, can be used to describe a pitcher plant or a lake ecosystem.
To approximate an overload of nutrients in pitcher-plant water, the team fed set amounts of ground-up wasps to the plants.
"That's equivalent to a 200-pound person eating one or two McDonald's quarter-pounders every day for four days," says Ellison.
In pitcher plants with enough added wasps, an ecosystem tipping point reliably occurred about 45 hours after the start of feeding.
The scientists now have a way of creating tipping points. Their next step will be to identify the early warning signs.
"Tipping points may be easy to prevent," says Ellison, "if we know what to look for."
Other authors of the paper are Benjamin Baiser of Harvard Forest and Nicholas Gotelli of the University of Vermont.Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas | EurekAlert!
How does the loss of species alter ecosystems?
18.05.2017 | Deutsches Zentrum für integrative Biodiversitätsforschung (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig
Excess diesel emissions bring global health & environmental impacts
16.05.2017 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Physicists from the University of Würzburg are capable of generating identical looking single light particles at the push of a button. Two new studies now demonstrate the potential this method holds.
The quantum computer has fuelled the imagination of scientists for decades: It is based on fundamentally different phenomena than a conventional computer....
An international team of physicists has monitored the scattering behaviour of electrons in a non-conducting material in real-time. Their insights could be beneficial for radiotherapy.
We can refer to electrons in non-conducting materials as ‘sluggish’. Typically, they remain fixed in a location, deep inside an atomic composite. It is hence...
Two-dimensional magnetic structures are regarded as a promising material for new types of data storage, since the magnetic properties of individual molecular building blocks can be investigated and modified. For the first time, researchers have now produced a wafer-thin ferrimagnet, in which molecules with different magnetic centers arrange themselves on a gold surface to form a checkerboard pattern. Scientists at the Swiss Nanoscience Institute at the University of Basel and the Paul Scherrer Institute published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.
Ferrimagnets are composed of two centers which are magnetized at different strengths and point in opposing directions. Two-dimensional, quasi-flat ferrimagnets...
An Australian-Chinese research team has created the world's thinnest hologram, paving the way towards the integration of 3D holography into everyday...
In the race to produce a quantum computer, a number of projects are seeking a way to create quantum bits -- or qubits -- that are stable, meaning they are not much affected by changes in their environment. This normally needs highly nonlinear non-dissipative elements capable of functioning at very low temperatures.
In pursuit of this goal, researchers at EPFL's Laboratory of Photonics and Quantum Measurements LPQM (STI/SB), have investigated a nonlinear graphene-based...
24.05.2017 | Event News
23.05.2017 | Event News
22.05.2017 | Event News
24.05.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
24.05.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
24.05.2017 | Event News