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Lest we forget

Posted 10/12/2014 by sevans

One hundred years after the outbreak of World War 1, while the ceramic poppies have been disappearing from the moat of the Tower of London, the flower that has come to symbolise the lives lost in conflict is also disappearing from the former battle fields of northern France and Belgian Flanders.

Research has found that overall plant biodiversity in the region has increased during the past 100 years; but this rise in the number of plant species is not good news. The findings highlight increasing globalisation and homogenisation of local environments as invasive species arrive and more diverse, specialised species become extinct.

According to Nina Hautekèete of the University of Lille, who lead the study: ‘Plant species richness and composition has changed drastically since the beginning of the 20th century. Within that time about one in every five to six species we studied were either lost in particular regions or newly introduced.’

Many of the species that have been lost are those which once grew within agricultural fields, including the field-larkspur (Consolida regalis) and the summer pheasant's-eye (Adonis aestivalis), which have disappeared as intensive farming has destroyed their habitats.

Habitat destruction and urban development have also caused species to be lost from fragile bogs and wetlands, including bog cotton (Eriophorum latifolium) and the spoonleaf sundew (Drosera intermedia), an insectivorous plant.

Most of the new species the researchers discovered were in urban environments of the study area. Many are garden plants that have now escaped into the wild, including creeping water primrose (Ludwigia peploides), an aquatic species that can clog waterways, and giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), a relative of the parsnip whose toxic sap can cause skin irritation and blisters.

‘This study highlights the homogenisation of the natural and semi-natural habitats around the world. Species loss occurs mainly in rare habitats, while immigrating species are mainly cosmopolitan species that do not necessarily replace the complex ecological interactions of species that were lost,’ says Hautekèete.

‘We studied the dynamics of changes over one century. We do not know the consequences of introducing new species to these ecosystems. A short term increase in biodiversity might be followed by a long term decrease, which may cause ecosystems to stop working properly,’  she adds. ‘An increase in regional species richness hides a worldwide homogenisation of habitats and we must take this into account when we are assessing the health of our ecosystems.’

Biodiversity is about more than simply counting the total number of species in a given habitat. Ecologists are also concerned about functional diversity and the ecological role of species, so the next phase of the study is to discover where the non-native plant species come from and whether climate change is contributing to the process.

The conventional wisdom is that the heavy artillery fire that devastated the landscapes also turned the soil over to such a degree that long-buried poppy seeds were returned to the surface and then bloomed. In this case, out of tragedy came beauty, which serves to remind us of that tragedy; but our environment is fragile and we cannot afford to lose such reminders.

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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