“We can no longer rely on plants alone to sequester all the CO2”

Sandra Lavorel poses at the headquarters of the BBVA Foundation in Bilbao. / Luis Angel Gomez

Interview | Ecology

Awarded with a Frontiers of Knowledge for defending biodiversity: she has created a huge catalog of plants that biologists around the world use to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis

Isabel Ibanez

Sandra Lavorel has promoted the creation of a huge catalog of plants, there are already more than 200,000 and growing. She measures each of its traits –height, shape, type of leaf, size of its seeds…– with the aim of identifying patterns of biodiversity. The aim is to relate these characteristics collected with the function that each one of them performs in the ecosystem, in order to be able to study the impact of climate change and find ways to mitigate it. Helping him in this task are the other two biologists with whom he shared the BBVA Foundation's Frontiers of Knowledge award last year in the category of Ecology and Conservation Biology, Mark Westoby and Sandra Díaz, as well as a legion of biologists who feed and they use that catalog all over the planet. The database is called TRY (try in English) because of the complexity of getting it up and running and getting other colleagues to share their data there.

– Could you explain how the so-called 'trait ecology' that you have promoted can help us in conserving biodiversity?

– With these traits we show that it is possible to characterize the behavior of these plants within their ecosystem and also the behavior of the climate. For example, in the Amazon rainforest there are many species and it is important to know how they work, but it is impossible to discover and catalog each one of them because it would take centuries and thousands of euros. But if we know simple characteristics such as their features, which can be detected with remote sensors, we can thus know the function they fulfill, making it easier for us to assess these forests.

– It says that certain plants are pollinated by certain insects, taking into account the physical characteristics of both. If those particular insects are gone, and they are, then those plants will be gone too. How could we use their knowledge to prevent it?

– Some plants depend on very specific insects to be pollinated and this is related to the special morphology between plant and insect, and if they are not pollinated exclusively by them they may not reproduce or die. Knowing the fit between plants and their insects helps us understand what these mean for them, what should lead to their protection and influence the fight against pesticides.

– Apart from reducing CO2 emissions, we will have to adapt to the changes that are taking place.

– We are not aware in our daily lives that we must adapt, because those fires, those floods, the drinking water that we are going to lack do not affect us on a day-to-day basis. So I think it's easier to motivate people to make adaptation a local phenomenon, because it's easier to think like that than across the planet. Adaptation is important because it can take different forms, each small step can cause many movements and these in turn generate larger changes. How to modify our consumption patterns; It is not only that it benefits the planet, but that it benefits us in our day to day life.

the extinction of plants

– Who are to blame for the extinction of plants?

– I would not blame people, in the current situation the main cause has to do with the destruction and degradation of habitats. Other causes are pollution and the arrival of invasive species, people who take specific species for their medical value and colonize other areas, or simply take them out of their place and extinguish them there... And all this interacts with the climate, that has not yet played an extinction role, I am referring to climate change, but it will contribute to the worsening of these effects.

– Many viruses reach us due to the loss of biodiversity, and more specifically of vegetation, due to deforestation.

– When the habitats of some animals are destroyed and go to inhabited areas or when humans approach them because they have more fields for agriculture, there are contacts and diseases are transmitted. Also when people take exotic animals home. There is a little-known story: when human beings began to domesticate the animals that we all know now and that live with us, many new diseases arose that killed many humans.

– Are plants the elements that most help to sequester CO2?

– There is no magic recipe. They do play a big role, as do many algae in the oceans, as well as carbon permanently sequestered in coral reefs. But organisms from the soil biota also contribute. Plants can't do it all by themselves. And it is highly unlikely that, given the speed we need to find solutions, entrusting that role to plants alone will suffice. There have to be other technology-based systems.

– By the way, with so much time between plants, do you think they feel, that they scream if they are hurt, that they communicate with each other?

– I am not aware of so much, but I am aware that they emit or release chemical substances to communicate with each other. And underground they have interconnected roots to transmit information and signs of stress.

Source link