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Renewable Vibes > News > Enviroment > A recent study suggests that the spacing patterns observed among vegetation in dryland ecosystems may serve as an alarming indication of their degradation.

A recent study suggests that the spacing patterns observed among vegetation in dryland ecosystems may serve as an alarming indication of their degradation.

Scientists have discovered that the arrangement of plants in drylands can indicate environmental degradation, according to a recent study. Drylands are characterized by islands of vegetation surrounded by bare soil, and researchers have long been intrigued by this spatial structure. However, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has shed light on why plants group together in this way.

An international team of scientists, including researchers from the University of Birmingham, collected field data from 115 sites around the world. They used mathematical models and remote sensing to understand how the environment influences the spatial structure of plant life. The study aimed to address the impact of lower humidity and reduced water availability on ecosystems, particularly in light of the increasing frequency of extreme drought events due to climate change.

Dr. Juliano Sarmento Cabral, Associate Professor for Biodiversity Modelling and Environmental Change at the University of Birmingham, emphasized the urgent need to comprehend how ecosystems respond to a drying environment. He highlighted the potential synergistic effects of land use and climate change on the biodiversity crisis. If ecosystems already suffer from human-caused degradation, such as overgrazing and resource exploitation, their ability to adapt to climate change may be compromised. The study aimed to identify signs of both degradation and the ability to cope with a drying environment.

Dr. Sarmento Cabral explained that self-organized spatial patterns are common in complex systems, including microbial communities and mussel beds. This phenomenon is also observed in dryland vegetation. While researchers have extensively studied the implications of these patterns, there has been limited empirical evidence to support their reasoning. To fill this gap, the scientists analyzed drylands worldwide along an aridity gradient to determine whether there is a connection between aridity levels and plant spacing.

The study found that as aridity increases, the spatial structure of vegetation becomes more pronounced, meaning that plants are more spread out in drier environments. Healthy dryland ecosystems adjust their spatial structure to better cope with stressful conditions like drought and high temperatures. These self-organized vegetation patterns enhance the resilience of drylands by enabling them to adapt to changing conditions while maintaining their functioning.

However, the researchers also discovered that ecosystems that are already degraded lose their adaptive capacity. Dr. Sarmento Cabral noted that degraded ecosystems are unable to adjust their spatial structure, making them more susceptible to further degradation as aridity and water shortages increase.

The scientists propose that monitoring changes in the spatial patterns of plants, or the lack thereof, could serve as an early indicator of ecosystem degradation. This could be a crucial step in managing and preserving dryland ecosystems in a hotter and drier world. Additionally, since vegetation patterning is essential in other natural systems, such as microbial communities and coastal wetlands, the study’s findings may have implications beyond arid zones.

Dr. Sarmento Cabral concluded by emphasizing the importance of closely monitoring at-risk ecosystems as the climate crisis intensifies. Drylands are home to endangered wildlife and rare plant species, making it crucial to identify early signs of degradation to take corrective action and protect these ecosystems.

The study, titled “Self-organization as a mechanism of resilience in dryland ecosystems,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2024. More information can be found in the cited source.

This article was originally published on and was provided by the University of Birmingham.

Spacing characteristics between vegetation could be a warning sign of degrading dryland ecosystems: Study (2024, January 29)
retrieved 29 January 2024

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