Ecosystems and global change

To fill knowledge gaps to enable civil society and government to better manage ecosystems under global change. In objective terms, this would translate to:

  • Studying responses of biodiversity at all levels (genes to ecosystems) and scales (local to biomes) to global change
  • Informing and engaging with civil society (local communities to scientists) and government to incorporate best science and traditional knowledge in management of ecosystems
  • Recasting taxonomy and biosystematics as an integral part of conservation science

Background

The degradation of natural ecosystems is of particular concern for several reasons. Changes are rapid, and, when associated with loss of species or ecosystems, irreversible. The loss of natural ecosystems also results in loss of ecosystem services such as clean water from watersheds, retention of soil and soil fertility, sequestration of carbon and provision of pollinators and natural enemies of pests. Value of these ecosystems services often exceeds the annual gross domestic product of countries. In a country like India, millions of people rely on services and products from natural ecosystems to sustain their livelihoods. Our understanding of biodiversity in natural ecosystems in terms of patterns of occurrence, and their role and functions remain so woefully inadequate that we are unable to fully comprehend the consequences of its loss. With climate change, rapid penetration of markets, increasing urbanization, globalization and increasing spread of invasive species, biodiversity crisis is likely to get worse with far-reaching impacts on human societies. Therefore linking science with the effective management of complex tropical ecosystems is a critical necessity, although it is still in its infancy.

Accurately cataloging organisms using the science of taxonomy is fundamental to describing life on earth and to the conservation of biodiversity. There are many unknown species within the ecological communities that are still awaiting taxonomic scrutiny and whose functions and roles in ecosystems through coevolved plant–animal interactions are largely unknown.

There also are emerging threats to ecosystem functioning and biodiversity from climate change, invasive species and disease. We are only beginning to understand the dynamics of social–ecological systems that view human use and interventions, as in use of fire, as part of complex ecological dynamics over time and space, rather than as imposed constraints and conditions on static ecosystems. Finally, we are still largely ignorant about the synergies and feedbacks between bio-physical processes such as climate variability and human activities in shaping the dynamics and response of ecosystems and biodiversity over time and space. This programme will address these knowledge gaps using disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches, and work towards a more scientifically informed and socially just conservation. This large programme has several working groups that focus on smaller, cohesive areas such as Biosystematics and Conservation Genetics, Monitoring and Managing Ecosystem Change, and Urban Ecology.

Issues addressed

  • Ecosystems and landscapes and the biodiversity communities in them are undergoing change at local, regional and global scales
  • Drivers of change and emerging threats include climate change, deforestation, forest use, urbanization, spread of invasive species
  • There are feedbacks and links between human interventions and bio-physical processes
  • Ecosystem services framework cannot explicitly address all knowledge and conceptual gaps

Working groups

There are six working groups under the Ecosystems and Global Change Programme:

  1. Biosystematics
  2. Terrestrial ecosystems and climate change
  3. Monitoring and habitat management
  4. Invasive species and disturbance
  5. Urban ecology
  6. Conservation planning and society

Biosystematics

Team: Aravind N.A., Ravikanth G., Priyadarsanan D.R. and Ganesan R.

This group teaches and practices research in systematics and conservation of insect species, molluscs, amphibians and plants.

Biosystematics objectives:

  • Systematic studies of groups to understand the phylogeny of Indian taxa and their global status
  • Strengthening and revitalizing the practice of systematics with the use of molecular, GIS and bio-informatics tools
  • Contributions from systematics science towards conservation of threatened species and their habitats
  • Human resource development in systematics (elective and courses for para-taxonomists)

Terrestrial ecosystems and climate change

Team: Aravind N.A., Soubadra Devy, Jagdish K.

The impact of global and regional climate changes on vegetation need to be carefully studied, particularly for biodiversity hotspots and forested landscapes that support the diverse biodiversity as well as livelihoods of human communities. Changes in ecosystems have cascading effects that need to be properly understood and quantified. With climate change already upon us, changes in species distributions, seasonal patterns, and ecosystem processes are already being documented. This working group conducts research in two biodiversity hotspots of India – the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalayas.

The working group objectives are:

  • To study historical and current patterns of vegetation to measure and map changes and attribute these changes to possible factors such as land use/ land cover change, and direct and indirect effects of climate change
  • To assess potential impacts of climate change on endemic species, montane ecosystems, species diversity and community structure of fragmented forests, phenology, and ecosystem processes
  • To study socio-economic implications and vulnerability of local communities to climate change and its impacts on patterns of human dependence on natural resources
  • To study potential mitigation of climate change through carbon sequestration and reduction of CO2 emissions, achieved by slowing down/ avoiding degradation and deforestation for different terrestrial ecosystems
  • To develop framework, mechanisms and institutional structures for sustainable use of bio-resources under climate change, and more generally under global environmental change by building resilience and developing adaptation strategies

Monitoring and habitat management

Team: T. Ganesh, Jagdish K., R. Ganesan

The demands of human society on natural resources and ecosystems have considerably altered the socio-ecological systems either directly or indirectly. Such changes are often not recorded and monitored systematically over space and time. This working group will address these issues in the following ways:

  • Identify the biophysical, ecological and socio-economic drivers of change that require monitoring for conservation and/or sustainable use of natural ecosystems
  • Develop and establish monitoring protocols for spatial and temporal scales of representative natural and semi-natural ecosystems and some protected areas in India using a combination of remotely sensed surrogates and ground measurements
  • Use existing monitoring data to address questions on structure and change that pan across various socio-ecological systems

Invasive species and disturbance

Team: Ankila Hiremath

Invasive species, fire and other disturbances are examples of a whole suite of direct or indirect human and biophysical influences on socio-ecological systems. The objectives of this working group are:

  • To understand the biophysical, ecological and socio-economic drivers underlying these influences
  • To understand the ecological and socio-economic impacts of these influences
  • To use this understanding to try and restore systems, whether with a conservation objective (as in the case of invasive species), or a sustainable use objective (as in the case of fire)
  • To train and collaborate with resource managers and practitioners
  • To measure the impact of invasive species and fire on the structure of native plant and large-mammal communities

Urban ecology

Team: Harini Nagendra, Jagdish K., Soubadra Devy, Aravind N.A.

Urbanisation, like climate change, has been identified as a major threat to biodiversity (Srinivasulu 2008). By 2030 more than 60% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities (Dietz et al 2007). Cities depend on nature and a wider hinterland from where they draw a variety of inputs and also flush their outputs, thus leaving behind a large ecological footprint. The current paradigm is that cities are net consumers of ecosystem services that are generated elsewhere in rural and natural landscapes. However, cities do have the potential to generate both ecosystem services and sustain biodiversity. Urban biodiversity and the associated ecosystem services have been ignored and undervalued because ecologists have focused only on large wild habitats and rare species. However, with rapid urbanization, the challenge is to build the native biodiversity and generate ecosystem services such as water and carbon sequestration within the urban landscape. This could be done by involving multiple stakeholders like the local municipality, architects and, most importantly, citizens in the neighbourhood. We also need to follow the concept of adaptive co-management.

The Urban ecology programme at ATREE is currently collaborating with the Stockholm Resilience Centre to focus on quantifying and mapping biodiversity and ecosystem services in Bangalore and work with government and citizens towards more sustainable urban socio-ecological systems. It is also working with a corporate to reduce carbon footprint and measure biodiversity on office campuses and working with another corporate in building awareness about carbon sequestration and biodiversity amongst professional staff.

Conservation planning and society

Team: Jagdish K., Nitin Rai

Conservation planning is the design of protected areas and networks of protected areas at all ecological, spatial and governance scales, ranging from sacred groves involving a village panchayat to large landscapes protected and managed by the state. Protected areas have largely been established and maintained by the state. In India, the design, location and management of protected areas have often not been informed adequately by either good ecological science or traditional, social, anthropological, cultural and economic knowledge and insights.

The Conservation planning and society working group at ATREE will incorporate a combination of ecological, forest rights, political ecology and economic perspectives to inform the design and management of protected areas with the involvement of local and regional stakeholders. This may require planning of testing alternate models of protected areas that are based on integration of ecological, socio-cultural and socio-economic perspectives and that are also synergistic with available legal frame-works such as the Forest Rights Act, as well as the provision for community and conservation reserves under the Wildlife Protection Act.

Research, policy and community interfaces

  • Assist government and civil society understand the implications of global change and prepare adaptation and other responses (as in Sikkim DBT, Vembanad, PA management plans (lantana)).
  • Develop a CAMPA monitoring protocol to inform investments in regeneration and reforestation
  • Monitor ecological and socio-economic changes post Forest Rights Act
  • Assist municipal authorities understand biodiversity and ecosystem service linkages in urban environments
  • Develop courses for Ph D, Masters and other audiences