Conserving Places for Species to “Play” – Like Red Sox at Fenway

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Learn

Editor’s Note: Today is the Home Opener for the Boston Red Sox who return to Fenway Park with their fans to celebrate the beloved ballpark’s 100th anniversary. So, it’s a perfect time to revisit the reflections of a Nature Conservancy scientist on some intriguing ways that revered baseball arenas like Fenway are similar to important places for conservation. Today’s post includes excerpts from a Planet Change blog on the research of community and landscape ecologist Mark Anderson that first appeared Aug. 24, 2011. And we can’t get enough of special places like Fenway Park: On Earth Day, April 22, The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts will be participating in a pre-game ceremony at Fenway for the Yankees game.

Why do some places host an extraordinary array of plants and animals — setting the stage for a unique expression of natural diversity that sets them apart from other places? And what does this mean for nature conservation in an age of climate change?

In other words … how can we support nature to maintain a diversity of plants, animals and benefits to people?

These are the kinds of questions pondered by community and landscape ecologist Mark Anderson, Science Director for The Nature Conservancy’s Eastern U.S. region. His cutting-edge conservation research is shedding light on some answers.

Instead of focusing on one or two plant or animal species in a landscape to save, Anderson says scientists are now wondering: how can conservation “create arenas for evolution, not just museums of the past?” Anderson calls this goal “conserving the stage” for different actors.

Or if you’re a baseball fan, check out this video in which Anderson visits Fenway Park in Boston to explain his research in terms more meaningful to a Red Sox — or even a Yankees — fan.

Preserving Arenas for Nature’s Game

In baseball, star players with various talents are traded onto the team and appear on the field to play a very specialized role in the game – not unlike the variety of species that live together in natural places or move through them.

And in conservation, a network of diverse natural places – much like a league of ballparks – must be preserved from year to year to provide the infrastructure for nature’s game to play out.

In recent research, Anderson was surprised when his analysis of 14 states and three provinces found this: at the scale of a single state, the number of plants and animals present was more closely related to the variety of geologic settings (such as coastal sands, limestone valleys, granite mountains, silty floodplains) than to the temperature or precipitation.

“It appears that physical settings play a strong role in creating and maintaining diversity” and changing climates add another layer of complexity, Anderson says. Species richness of each state was highly correlated with four factors: the number of geological classes, latitude, elevation range and the amount of calcareous bedrock.

Anderson, who shared his findings at a training seminar for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, is seeking to share lessons for how practitioners — those who “do” conservation in the field — can continue to protect landscapes, rivers, wetlands, forests and coasts even as these natural settings change with the climate.

Anderson believes his research underscores some of the principles of the Conservancy’s planning process, Conservation by Design: making sure we have “enough of everything” to keep nature functioning as a whole. His research indicates we may need to account for one more factor of diversity — geophysical settings — when identifying high-priority places to protect.

Anderson’s findings also reinforce the importance of preserving nature’s “capacity…for self-renewal,” (a phrase coined by Aldo Leopold, the father of the conservation movement).

Even if temperatures warm or rainfall increases, some geological settings will continue to be critical  places for new “players” or species to move in and thrive. The key, says Anderson, is to have a network of these places distributed along latitudes so there are enough refuges for plants and animals to find new homes as their optimal temperature zones move north.

Anderson says he now realizes that current natural communities are an expression of how nature’s processes and physical settings come together at a place.

These settings (just like good old Fenway) remain important even as the climate and occupant plants and animals (or this season’s ball players) change over time.

Lisa Hayden is a blogger and feature writer for The Nature Conservancy

Photo by: Lisa Hayden (Mark Anderson, Nature Conservancy Science Director for the Eastern U.S. region, visits historic Fenway Park in Boston).

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About Planet Change

Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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