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September 14th 2019 marks 250 years since the birth of explorer-naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. This collection celebrates his life and legacy by bringing together articles on ecology, global change, and geoscience from across six Nature journals.
Organised into four of the major scientific themes of his life, and with a particular focus on Latin America where many of his pioneering ideas were first forged, this collection serves to highlight the highly interdisciplinary nature of his legacy.
An accompanying Editorial highlights how his view of the world as an interconnected system of biological and physical processes changed the way subsequent generations would understand the natural world, and discusses how his influence still lives on in contemporary science.
Explorer-naturalist Alexander von Humboldt’s contributions to the fields of ecology, global change and geoscience fundamentally altered the way we view the natural world and our place in it. On the 250th anniversary of his birth, we look back over his life and compile a collection of articles inspired by his legacy.
Terrestrial animals can be classified into distinct biogeographic regions, but less is known about what shapes these global boundaries. Here, the authors identify geological and climatic factors that determine the separation of realms through time.
A comparison of communities of Anolis lizards across an elevation gradient in the Dominican Republic finds contrasting effects of habitat conversion in lowland and highland communities and suggests that warm-climate specialists dominate human-modified landscapes, even in cool macroclimates.
Differential responses of plant and animal functional diversity to climatic variation could affect trait matching in mutualistic interactions. Here, Albrecht et al. show that network structure varies across an elevational gradient owing to bottom-up and top-down effects of functional diversity.
Explaining species richness patterns is a key question in ecology. Peterset al. sample diverse plant and animal groups across elevation on Mt. Kilimanjaro to show that, while disparate factors drive distributions of individual taxa, diversity overall decreases with elevation, mostly driven by effects of temperature.
Predictions suggest that a high proportion of plant species will be threatened with extinction in the near future. A global assessment of the threat status of cacti suggests that these iconic plants are amongst the most threatened taxonomic groups, with 31% of the 1,478 evaluated species at risk of extinction.
Next to the latitudinal biodiversity gradient, the decline in species richness with elevation is one of the most ubiquitous ecological patterns. Yet consensus about the processes that underlie this gradient is lacking. Ignacio Quintero and Walter Jetz examine the evolutionary underpinnings of elevational gradients in bird species richness in the 46 main mountain systems of the world. They find that across all mountain ranges, species richness decreases linearly with elevation, whereas rates of diversification increase. The findings go against the idea that higher diversification rates support the build-up and maintenance of greater species richness at high elevations, and point to the role that ongoing and recent diversification has in maintaining the highly adapted biodiversity of higher elevations.
Climate change may lead to changes in elevational patterns of vegetation activitities. Here, the authors analyze global remotely sensing data collected during 1982–2015 to investigate the spatio-temporal dynamics of the elevational gradient in vegetation activities.
Higher-order interactions (HOIs) are often assumed to be negligible in natural communities. Here, the authors present a framework for incorporating HOIs into diversity models and show that their inclusion can dramatically improve explanatory power.
The structure of ecological networks can vary dramatically, yet there may be common features across networks from different ecosystem types. Here, Bramon Mora et al. use network alignment to demonstrate that there is a common backbone of interactions underlying empirical food webs.
Data from 2,201 interviews in 68 South American communities show that the use of palms (Arecaceae) is linked to function and geography. Plant size and location are stronger predictors of utilization for basic needs than less-basic ones, such as ritual uses.
Droughts are intensifying under climate change. Research into the resilience of stream food webs to drought now shows that ‘rewiring’ of food web structure in the face of species losses helps to buffer changes to the overall network structure.
Comparing temperatures in the forest understory versus open habitat across boreal, temperate and tropical biomes, the authors show that tree canopies act as thermal insulators that buffer the understory against temperature extremes.
Physically connected habitats are required for terrestrial species to shift their liveable ranges as the tropics warm. The authors show that over half of tropical forest area is currently unable to provide such climate connectivity, and that loss of connectivity is accelerating with deforestation.
The immense biodiversity of tropical ecosystems is threatened by multiple interacting local and global stressors that can only be addressed by the concerted efforts of grassroots organizations, researchers, national governments and the international community.
Relatively little is understood about seasonal effect of climate change on the Amazon rainforest. Here, the authors show that Amazon forest loss in response to dry-season intensification during the last glacial period was likely self-amplified by regional vegetation-rainfall feedbacks.
Plant diversity affects ecosystem function in myriad ways, but the effect on food webs has received less investigation. Here, the authors use high-resolution food web data from a grassland diversity experiment to show that apparent and exploitative competition motifs increase with plant diversity.
Intensifying drought has caused massive die-offs in ecosystems worldwide. Here, Angelini et al.use observations, experiments, and models in US salt marshes to show that a key mutualism increases ecosystem resilience by maintaining stress-resistant habitat patches that aid post-drought recovery.
Climate change is spatially asymmetrical and so will alter the behaviour of generalist consumer species, affecting food webs in two ways. Movement into novel ecosystems will affect the topology of food webs, while changes within an ecosystem will affect interaction strengths.
Secondary foundation species, such as epiphytes, form structurally complex habitats on primary foundation species. A meta-analysis shows that they significantly enhance the abundance and richness of inhabitants compared to primary foundation species alone.
Combining biophysical and economic models, the authors show that the impacts of land use on bird biodiversity and carbon sequestration have increased over the years 2000–2011, with cattle farming being a major driver of biodiversity loss.
The combined impacts of climate change and deforestation are estimated to reduce Amazon tree species richness by up to 58% by 2050, whilst deforestation alone may cause 19–36%, and climate change alone 31–37%.
Habitat change and warming each contribute to species' elevational range shifts, but their synergistic effects have not been explored. Here, Guo et al. reanalyze published data and show that the interaction between warming and forest change predicts range shifts better than either factor on its own.
Analysing responses of 378 bird species to deforestation in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, the authors show that sensitivity to habitat loss is dependent on where a population is located within its range.
Industrial mining contributes to deforestation in the Amazon, and the extent of effect could occur beyond areas of land explicitly permitted for mining. Here, Sonter et al. show that deforestation in 70-km buffer zones around mines has led to an estimated 9% of Brazilian Amazon deforestation since 2005.
A large proportion of European alpine plants are able to spread upslope faster than current climate velocities. Nevertheless, invasive species tend to be particularly effective dispersers, making them an additional pressure on the vulnerable native flora.
With global warming, Andean forests are changing to include more trees of low-elevation, heat-loving species but rates of compositional change are not uniform across elevations and are insufficient to keep species in equilibrium with climate.
This Perspective describes persecution, protection and ignorance archetypes for managing and monitoring species redistribution under climate change, and argues for global shared governance agreements to cope with species shifts into new geopolitical areas.
Selecting economically viable forest management strategies that deliver carbon storage and biodiversity benefits can be a difficult task. Now, research in the western Andes of Colombia shows that naturally regenerating forests can quickly accumulate carbon and support diverse ecological communities at minimal cost.
This paper uses a range of shared socioeconomic pathways scenarios to estimate the future terrestrial vertebrate habitat loss and extinction risk that could result from projected global land-use change.
Palaeoenvironmental analysis reveals the ecological history of the Andean–Amazonian corridor, where European colonization resulted in depopulation, land-use decline and forest succession such that by the nineteenth century the region came to be seen as a pristine natural environment.
The Amazon forest both responds to and drives much of the variability in climate and biogeochemistry from annual to millennial time scales. But highly resolved records of past climate variability in the region are hard to come by, and until now it has not been clear whether the Amazon forest was wetter or drier during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). Xianfeng Wang et al. have now collected oxygen isotope data covering the past 45,000 years from stalagmite calcite deposits in the Paraíso Cave in eastern Amazonia. Their data show that rainfall was about half that of today during the LGM (around 21,000 years ago) but was some 50% greater during the mid-Holocene (6,000 years ago), broadly coinciding with global changes in temperature and carbon dioxide. Although the Amazon was drier during the glacial period, the rainforest persisted throughout. Whether or not it can be sustained in the future, however, remains an open question.
The Altiplano-Puna magma body is located in the world's second highest plateau, the Altiplano-Puna, but the influence of melt production in the surface uplift of the Central Andes is unclear. Perkinset al. link surface topography and isotactic modelling to constrain the melt production in the magma body.
Geomagnetic jerks in the Earth’s magnetic field are caused by the arrival of hydromagnetic waves and could be generated by sudden releases of buoyancy in the Earth’s core, suggest geodynamic numerical model simulations.
Oceanic shield volcanoes flank failures can generate large tsunamis. Here, the authors provide evidence that two tsunamis impacted the coast of Tenerife 170 Ma, the first generated by volcano flank failure and the second following a debris avalanche of the edifice during an on-going ignimbrite-forming eruption.
A delayed increase of landslide activity occurred about two to six years after two volcanic eruptions in Chile in 2008 and 2011, according to remote-sensing data. The time lag is consistent with decaying tree roots in areas covered by tephra.
Following a submarine volcanic eruption that cleared the local seafloor, a new microbial genus and species of bacterial trichomes, named Thiolava veneris, colonized the substrate 130 m below sea level.
The Andean orogeny commenced in the Cretaceous, but was preceded by backarc extension starting in the Jurassic. Here, the author presents a 4D geodynamic subduction model reproducing the evolution of overriding plate deformation along with a progressive decrease in slab dip, explaining Jurassic-present arc migration.
Flank instability and lateral collapse are a potential hazard at volcanic edifices. Here, the authors use numerical simulations to show that at Fogo volcano, lateral collapse can trigger a significant deflection of magma pathways in the crust, demonstrating how volcanic edifices may evolve.
Rapid and spatially localized geomagnetic field variations around 1000 BC are hard to reconcile with expected field behaviour arising from the core dynamo. Here, the authors show that the intensity spike is consistent with an intense flux patch on the core-mantle boundary (8–22°) located under Saudi Arabia.
Arc volcanism emits higher metal fluxes to Earth’s atmosphere than hotspot volcanism. The systems’ unique gas compositions are controlled by magmatic water content and redox state, as shown by a compilation of volcanic gas and aerosol metal data.
The redox state of volcanic gases and melts can become decoupled during magma ascent, according to observations of gas emissions from Kīlauea’s lava lake, Hawaii. Cooling of fast-rising bubbles changes the abundance of redox-sensitive gas species.
Eruptive styles at a single volcano may transition from explosive to effusive behaviour (or vice versa) at any given time. This review examines the underlying controls on eruptive styles such as magma viscosity, degassing and conduit geometry at volcanoes with silicic compositions.