Jeff Wells is one of the world's leading ornithologists. He was the director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society and worked on the staff of the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology. For the last decade he has focused his research on the boreal forest, which makes up much of northern Canada (and northern Eurasia), is crucially important to bird migration and breeding and—of great importance to climate change—is the world's densest terrestrial carbon storehouse. Boreal means "of or pertaining to the north or north wind;" boreal forests are usually made up mostly of evergreens.
Jeff, who is a Naturalist's Notebook friend and collaborator, emailed last night to let us know that he and his colleagues at the Boreal Songbird Initiative have just released a report on the value of the boreal forest in protecting the planet's biodiversity. Jeff makes an interesting point: Most definitions of "biodiversity hotspots" around the world rely almost solely on the number of plant and animal species that live in an area. In truth, however, other ecological traits can be just as important in protecting the diversity of species on Earth.
Here's a section of the report introduction Jeff wrote on the boreal forest's role in sustaining biodiversity (emphasis mine):
"One of the most striking features of the boreal forest is the ecological intactness of its forest and wetland ecosystems. More than 25% of the world’s never-before harvested forest lies within Canada’s boreal forest, including at least seven of the world’s top ten largest blocks of unfragmented forest (the others are in the Amazon Basin). Canada’s boreal encompasses millions of lakes and ponds and in fact holds more surface freshwater than any other place on Earth. Four of the world’s top ten largest lakes are found here, including Great Bear Lake—arguably the world’s largest pristine lake, only featuring a single community of 300 people living on its shores.
"These boreal lakes are home to healthy, age-structured populations that include the largest known individuals on record of species such as lake trout, brook trout, and Arctic grayling. Canada’s boreal forest is also rich in free-flowing, undammed rivers—more than there are remaining in the rest of North America combined. While river biodiversity is imperiled by dams, pollution, and over-use in most of the world, those in Canada’s boreal are among the last strongholds for anadromous migratory fish populations. Pacific salmon still ascend the Stikine, Nass, and Skeena Rivers into the Sacred Headwaters of northern B.C. On the Atlantic Coast, where Atlantic salmon runs are lost or endangered in the U.S. and southern Canada, healthy populations still ascend rivers in the boreal regions of Quebec and Labrador.
"The vast, ecologically intact forests and wetlands of Canada’s boreal forest and the immense populations of insects and fish they support in turn make the region incredibly productive for birds. More than 300 species occur regularly within Canada’s boreal forest, which combine to represent an estimated 1-3 billion individuals at the beginning of the nesting season and 3-5 billion when adults and young begin their southward migration. Some of these birds are highly specialized in habitat preferences and occur almost exclusively in the boreal forest. The palm warbler, for example, has 98% of its breeding range within the boreal ecoregion, where it specializes in nesting in peatlands—particularly those of Hudson Bay, one of the largest wetlands in the world at more than 370,000 square kilometers. Wetlands such as these are some of the world’s largest storehouses of terrestrial carbon and are critical to filtering and storing remarkable quantities of freshwater. In fact, Canada’s boreal forest is estimated to hold more than 208 billion tons of carbon in its trees, soils, peatlands, and under permafrost—equivalent to 300 years worth of Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions at 2010 levels. Its freshwater inputs are critical drivers of ocean currents that move nutrients around the globe, impacting global weather patterns and the productivity of marine fisheries.
"Also currently preserved within Canada’s boreal is one of the world’s last examples of large-scale large mammal migrations—that of the more than 15 recognized migratory herds of caribou, some of which traverse thousands of kilometres from their northern tundra calving grounds to more southern boreal forest wintering areas. Large predators such as grizzly bears, timber wolves, and wolverines have disappeared from most of their historic North American range but still have healthy populations in the boreal.
"Canada’s boreal forest is also home to its share of biodiversity oddities and mysteries. There is the landlocked population of freshwater harbor seals found in Quebec’s Tursujuq National Park. There are New World and Old World evolutionary lineages of both caribou and wolves, both of which persist in the boreal. There are also a variety of range-restricted wildlife species (species that occur over a relatively small area) like the Ungava collared lemming, Richardson’s collared lemming, singing vole, Dall’s sheep, collared pika, the Whooping Crane, and the American bison to name a few.
"As climate change continues to impact the planet, Canada’s boreal forest becomes even more critical to protect. Its massive terrestrial carbon storehouse is crucial to maintain in order to prevent further carbon from being released into the atmosphere. Canada’s boreal will also become increasingly important as a place of refuge for species forced northward by inhospitable climates farther south. Further, the best insurance for maintaining the resilience of plant and animal communities to climate change will be the preservation of intact, interconnected ecosystems and robust populations. Species that must shift ranges northward to survive will have their best opportunity to so do when unimpeded by fragmented habitat full of human-made barriers. Careful land-use planning now, that conserves large parts of Canada’s boreal forest, is imperative to providing the best likelihood of survival for countless species and preserving the boreal’s diverse ecological values."
You can read the full report at http://www.borealbirds.org/reports/coolcanadianbiodiversity.pdf. Thanks for the great work, Jeff. More of us should be working to raise awareness of the importance of the boreal forest and helping to preserve it.
Out and About...
Today's Puzzlers How about a couple of riddles? 1) What does a clock do when it's hungry?
2) What happens when chemists die?