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    How my research is putting blue crab on the menu in Croatia

    “It’s dirty, hot work picking up blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus). They like murky water, and you need special clothing and equipment to wade through the swampy lagoon here in the Palud – Palù ornithological reserve in Pula, Croatia. It was the end of a long day in September last year when this photo was taken, and I was hot and sweaty under that special clothing. And once you find a crab, you have to be careful not to injure yourself picking it up: either on its sharp lateral spine, or from its very strong claws.I catch the crabs because they are an invasive species, and because it’s my job: as well as working as a biotechnologist, I’m a fisher. Blue crabs are native to Chesapeake Bay in the eastern United States, and they probably made their way here on a ship in the early twentieth century.There has been a large population in the Po river estuary for many years — but a combination of factors, including global warming, has seen them spread down the Adriatic coast since 2022.The crabs are a problem because they eat the bivalves, fish and other crabs that make up the diets of many of the endangered seabirds here at the nature reserve — without that vital source of food, these birds will be even more threatened and we’ll face a serious loss of biodiversity.My colleagues and I at the Juraj Dobrila University of Pula are encouraging local people to eat the crabs, which are sold at the markets. We’ve held awareness activities since long before 2022, in anticipation of the explosion of the invasive population. I know more and more people who collect blue crabs for food.We’re losing the battle against climate change: the changes are too fast and we are far too slow to adapt to them. But I hope by better understanding the biological capital we have available here, we can build a better relationship with nature.” More

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    Forestry social science is failing the needs of the people who need it most

    Jorge Lengua and his son (also Jorge) do not need to cut down trees to harvest Brazil nuts in the Bolivian Amazon.Credit: Martin Silva/AFP/Getty

    The world’s forests are vital to its future. In terms of climate change, they are increasingly seen as key to both mitigation — in their role as carbon sinks — and adaptation, through sustainable management of forests. Tied in with both is the funding provided by those looking to offset carbon dioxide emissions by planting trees, a source of much-needed climate finance.It is, therefore, unsurprising that ‘climate change’ and ‘climate finance’ are terms that dominate studies in forestry policy, according to a review of the literature published last week (see That, in itself, need not be a problem. But one stark conclusion from the report is that too few studies focus on the people who live in, or who make a living from, forests.
    Swathes of Earth are turning into desert — but the degradation can be stopped
    This finding should be taken on board by science funding agencies and the United Nations-affiliated research networks for biodiversity and climate change. And it should be taken into account when research priorities are set and collaborations are formed. Quite aside from the ethical case for more community-focused forestry policy, forest conservation is unlikely to succeed without the involvement of those most closely associated with forests.The review is published by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), a global body representing more than 600 institutions across over 100 countries. It assesses mostly English-language social-science literature published between 2011 and 2022 — covering the period since the last such review, in 2010. The authors find that the literature is dominated by the climate-mitigation interests of governments in high-income countries. They dub this the ‘financialization’ and ‘climatization’ of the literature surrounding forest policy.This trend can be explained partly by the fact that forests are increasingly being incorporated into climate policies at all levels of governance — not least because of legally binding targets set by the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Forests are seen as providing the path of least resistance to achieving these targets, because their involvement requires little in the way of behaviour change from high-income countries. This has led to an expanding array of forest-related climate agreements at both regional and global levels. The largest of these is REDD+, through which low- and middle-income countries are paid (by companies and governments in high-income countries) to protect their forests. In return, contributors benefit from associated carbon credits. By the end of 2023, projects covered by REDD+ encompassed more than 60% of the forested area of developing countries. The scheme is not without controversy, with studies showing that carbon offsets can be overstated1 and have little impact on the economic well-being of forest communities2.
    Biodiversity thrives in Ethiopia’s church forests
    Forest agreements rely on the research community for support. Take REDD+ again. Some scientists are looking at ways to measure how carbon is stored in different forests; others are working on verifying that countries comply with climate commitments. Researchers also sit on scientific advisory committees.But there’s more to the study of forest governance than climate. For example, there’s the matter of how Indigenous and local knowledge contribute to biodiversity conservation today. And there are studies of the various ecotourism schemes being set up. But these subjects are less well-represented in the literature.Researchers in such fields do advise on forest-related international agreements not linked directly to climate change. These include the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF), a global body dedicated to discussing a wide range of forest-related issues. But the UNFF is a voluntary arrangement; unlike the UN conventions on biodiversity and climate change, its decisions have no legal force.
    We must get a grip on forest science — before it’s too late
    The UN biodiversity convention, whose member states have agreed to conserve 30% of Earth’s land, waters and coasts by 2030, draws on a wider set of research disciplines — not least through its scientific advisory body, IPBES, which incorporates studies in Indigenous and local knowledge into its work3. The convention also contains an explicit mandate to provide benefits for the people who rely on biodiversity for their livelihoods. However, the IUFRO review’s authors found that there is little coordination between the biodiversity convention and the UN’s climate convention — or between the researchers who advise these two bodies.The review is far from the first to highlight that research that should aim to benefit all stakeholders instead focuses on areas that are priorities for the governments of high-income countries. This is an important and timely reminder. It should not be difficult for the researchers involved in the world’s largest scientific networks — the IPCC for climate and IPBES for biodiversity — to create a shared agenda for the study of forests that extends beyond climate change and climate finance. And, given the need for such action, funders should respond positively to such a proposal.Earth’s forests have the potential to benefit people everywhere. Researchers, policymakers and funders must ensure that everyone’s needs are taken into account. More

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    Why my heart beats for Nigeria’s endangered bats

    “Many Nigerians consider bats to be pests or bad omens of some kind. But I see them as cute and amazingly diverse. Bats provide ecosystem services that many people don’t know about. For example, they eat the insects that destroy crops.I spend a lot of time mapping bat populations and tracking their health. This picture was taken earlier this year at the Oban Forest Reserve in Cross River State in southern Nigeria. The reserve, which isn’t in great shape ecologically, lies on the border of Cross River National Park, one of the country’s last undisturbed forests.We catch the bats using traps and release them as soon as we can. In the photo, I’m looking at the wings of a bat to identify its age. Juvenile bats have cartilage growth plates in their joints; these plates are visible through the skin as light and dark bands.The bat pictured belongs to a common species. But my team and I found a small population of the much rarer short-tailed roundleaf bat (Hipposideros curtus) in the nearby Afi mountains. It was only the third population of the species to be discovered in Nigeria. These bats are so rare that it took us nine years working in this region before we finally captured one last year.The main threats to bat populations here are wildfire, deforestation, logging and agriculture. The southeast, where the Oban reserve is located, is of interest to mining companies. And meat from fruit bats is a popular source of protein in Nigeria; bats are sometimes hunted in their cave roosts, and might abandon a cave after they’ve been disturbed in such a way.An important part of what I do is to educate the public about the ecological roles that bats have and to dispel myths about them. In the United States, there’s been a turnaround from people fearing bats to thinking they are cute and deserving protection. We need that energy here.” More

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    Diana Wall obituary: ecologist who foresaw the importance of soil biodiversity

    Credit: Evelyn Hockstein/Polaris/eyevine

    Diana Wall was a true ecology and climate pioneer. Biodiversity in soil is often overlooked — a case of out of sight, out of mind — but Wall understood its importance for a sustainable future. The soil is home to more than half of all species, which are crucial for Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems. Wall spent her entire career exploring how soil-dwelling organisms regulate carbon and nutrient cycling, and how they respond to climate change. She focused on a little-studied but ubiquitous group of soil organisms — nematodes (roundworms) — across ecosystems. She also unflaggingly championed the importance of soil biodiversity for society. She has died aged 80.From 2011, as founding chair of the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative, Wall brought together soil ecologists to inform policy, education and the public. She was at her best when she travelled around the world for research, to connect with soil ecologists — including many from marginalized communities — and to advocate for soil biodiversity to be at the heart of sustainability discussions. She also orchestrated the 2016 Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas, which mapped the organisms that live under our feet and the threats they face.Born in Durham, North Carolina, Wall first became interested in nematodes during her undergraduate studies at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. There, she launched her career in soil ecology by investigating nematodes that fed on the roots of red clover (Trifolium pratense), earning a PhD in 1971. As a postdoc in the Department of Nematology at the University of California, Riverside, Wall focused initially on nematode communities in North American desert soils. During the late 1980s, she became interested in the unexplored soil biodiversity of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica — one of the coldest, driest regions on Earth, and a place at the environmental limits of what underground life can tolerate.
    Secrets of life in the soil
    She spent more than 25 consecutive years visiting the valleys, investigating the survival and functioning of soil organisms as well as their response to climate change. Only a handful of animals live in these dry, cold soils. Wall and her colleagues discovered that — by feeding on its microbial prey — one nematode species, Scottnema lindsayae, was crucial for the carbon cycle there. The team also showed that climate change has caused big shifts in Antarctic soil food webs over time. The decreasing abundance of S. lindsayae and increasing prevalence of other animal species has had large knock-on effects on the turnover of soil carbon, revealing that this often-ignored but crucial component of biodiversity can have widespread impacts on the region’s ecosystem.In 1993, Wall moved to Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where she remained for the rest of her career. She had a huge influence on students and colleagues alike, through her science and her leadership roles. She was the director of the university’s Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory until 2005, and the inaugural director of its School of Global Environmental Sustainability — a post she held from 2008 until her death.Although Antarctic soil ecology remained Wall’s passion throughout her career, her scientific contributions didn’t end there: they encompassed the world. Wall had a remarkable gift for bringing people together to tackle scientific questions that could not be addressed in any other way. For example, she recruited an international team to conduct a global-scale decomposition experiment, which showed that the role of soil animals in regulating the decomposition of biological matter — a key process in the global carbon cycle — varies between ecosystems and depends on the region’s climate. Together with researchers worldwide, she also investigated the distribution of soil animals across biomes and found that high above-ground plant diversity doesn’t always coincide with high below-ground animal diversity at a global level.
    Current conservation policies risk accelerating biodiversity loss
    Wall also regularly convened, or joined, global groups of soil ecologists to synthesize a growing body of knowledge on the importance of underground biodiversity for ecosystems and society — for instance, through its role in regulating food production, suppressing soil-borne pathogens and providing clean air and water. This led to influential articles on sustaining soil biodiversity for ecosystem services and the need for global monitoring and conservation of soil-dwelling organisms. She spearheaded what is now a vibrant, inclusive community, promoting and communicating soil biodiversity research on a global stage. Wall received many honours for her contributions to the field, including the Tyler Prize — an award sometimes considered equivalent to a Nobel for environmental scientists. Her national and international leadership roles included the presidencies of the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the Ecological Society of America.I first met Diana at a conference she had organized in Colorado in 1995. I was an early-career scientist, starting out on my own journey into soil ecology. It was clear then that she was special. I was struck by her enthusiasm, openness and boundless energy — characteristics that remained constant throughout her career. Diana was also humble, often playing down her own achievements while celebrating those of others. She always cared about other scientists, and was eager to learn about their research and their lives outside work. She has supported many people in their careers or during difficult times. Rarely do people touch as many lives as Diana did. She will be sorely missed, as a colleague, friend and mentor, and the field of soil ecology is at a loss without her. She will be remembered fondly as the global ambassador for soil biodiversity. More

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    ‘Ghost roads’ could be the biggest direct threat to tropical forests

    08 May 2024

    By using volunteers to map roads in forests across Borneo, Sumatra and New Guinea, an innovative study shows that existing maps of the Asia-Pacific region are rife with errors. It also reveals that unmapped roads are extremely common — up to seven times more abundant than mapped ones. Such ‘ghost roads’ are promoting illegal logging, mining, wildlife poaching and deforestation in some of the world’s biologically richest ecosystems. More

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    Finding millennia-old ‘monumental’ corals could unlock secrets of climate resilience

    Large, ancient ‘monumental’ trees are important ambassadors for nature conservation. Besides their symbolic value, they have overcome more ecological challenges than most of their younger relatives, and so might hide evolutionary secrets to mitigate the impacts of climate change (O. Pasques and S. Munné-Bosch Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 121, e2317866121; 2024).
    Competing Interests
    The authors declare no competing interests. More

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    Changing rainforest to plantations shifts tropical food webs

    03 May 2024

    A study provides insights into how energy flows in the food webs that connect soil- and canopy-dwelling organisms in tropical ecosystems with high biodiversity. When rainforest is converted to plantations, food webs are simplified and restructured, leading to profound changes in tropical-ecosystem functioning. More