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Without enough animals to spread seeds, plants can't adapt to climate change

Posted at 5:10 PM, Mar 30, 2022

HOUSTON — The ground beneath us and the trees over our heads have provided birds and mammals a place to call home for millions of years. Ecosystems change throughout time, sometimes leading to the death of animals.

"One of the biggest drivers is loss of habitat,” said Lydia Beaudrot, assistant professor in biosciences at Rice University.

She's been working alongside research scientist Evan Fricke who has found that plants are becoming less resilient to a changing climate because of the decrease in animals spreading their seeds.

“In our changing climate, that means that the habitat suitable for a given plant species are basically moving in space," Fricke said. "So a place that has the right combination of temperature and precipitation now will basically be in a different location ten, 20, 30 years in the future. In order for plant species to actually make it to those locations, they need to move. But of course, plants individually can't move, but their seeds can.”

Fewer plants and trees mean less carbon can be sucked out of the atmosphere.

“We know that a lot of the tree species that these large-bodied animals disperse the seeds for have more density in their wood, and so they're able to store more carbon,” Beaudrot said.

Researchers say it’s a vicious cycle that leads to even more loss of habitat. However, all hope is not lost.

“There are a lot of efforts right now for increasing the amount of protected areas," Beaudrot said. "So, if you think about national parks or other kinds of places, reserves that are set aside to maintain biodiversity. Within Houston, we do have Memorial Park, which is a small park in the middle of the city, and there's actually been some camera-trapping work going on there. And it turns out there's some really neat animals that are in the middle of the city."

Footage has been captured by Houston Wilderness showing all the animals that come out at night.

“We need to understand what wildlife we have in the region and how we have," said Deborah January-Bevers, president of Houston Wilderness. "And then we need to understand where habitat is being degraded, where those wildlife are struggling to be able to have the habitat they need to thrive and survive.”

She says parks like this are of course everywhere in our country and while they help wildlife, humans have also disrupted the natural flow of wildlife. Houston has a solution that it thinks other cities can learn from.

“There is a major thoroughfare, memorial drive, that runs right down the middle of it," January-Bevers said. "And so it has separated the two pieces of the park for many, many, many years.”

So, the city is building a landscape bridge connecting one side to the other offering a space to restore native plants and animals to the area.

“It’s really only been going on about 18 months," January-Bevers said. "They've been able to pull this laden bridge together really quickly.”

It’s constructions like this, that Fricke and Beaudrot say can make a difference in cities all over the world.

“Supporting the connectivity of our habitats allows the animals that are there to reach their full potential in terms of seed dispersal,” Fricke said.