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Planting Trees May Boost Riverbed Animals' Ability To Fight Climate Change, Researchers Say

Oct 25, 2015 10:30 PM EDT
Fall River
Every autumn between five and eight kilograms of dry, dead leaves fall into Welsh streams for insects to feed on. Then fish, bats and birds are provided with ample, nutritious food in return.
(Photo : Flickr: Kimberly Vardeman)

Planting trees along Britain's 242,334 miles of upland rivers and streams could help save natural environments from future climate change damage, researchers reveal in a new study. This mitigation could also save cool-water species that call these riverbeds home. 

Researchers from Cardiff University provide new insight regarding how trees boost the resilience of river ecosystems. Essentially, deciduous trees provide shade and protect river species from damagingly high temperatures. Also, every autumn between five and eight kilograms of dry, dead leaves fall into Welsh streams for insects to feed on. Then, the insects act as a vital food source for fish, river birds and bats. Keeping insect populations high is important for helping river ecosystems combat the effects of future climate change, researchers explained in a news release

For their study, researchers recorded populations of river insects and brown trout living within 20 Welsh mountain streams. A variety of habitats are present throughout this area ranging from moorland, conifer forests or deciduous woodland, the researchers noted. Moorland is characterized by low-growing vegetation on acidic soils, while conifer forests are comprised of trees that grow needles instead of leaves. Lastly, deciduous trees are temperate broad-leaf trees that lose their leaves each year. This seasonal variation makes them increasingly susceptible to climate change.

After measuring insect and fish populations, researchers were able to measure the special stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen present in the river organisms. This gave them a better idea of how much of the animals' energy originally came from leaf litter, according to the news release.

"We were surprised that, no matter where we looked, roughly half of the carbon in river insects had originated from vegetation in the surrounding landscape rather than the river itself -- in other words leaves falling or being blown into the river," Dr. Stephen Thomas, lead author of the study from Cardiff University's School of Biosciences, explained in the release. "But, because there was so much more leaf litter at deciduous woodland sites, the numbers of insects supported by these streams was at least double that in any other stream type."

Since climate change is inevitable, their findings suggest that measures can be taken to protect some of the world's most vulnerable ecosystems. 

"In rivers, reducing pollution or restoring bankside broadleaves appear to be very effective ways to increase resilience, but these actions take decades. We want to impress on decision makers the urgency of taking action now to protect against climate change effects in future," Steve Ormerod, river biodiversity and climate change expert and also a professor from the School of Biosciences, added in a statement.

Their study was recently published in the journal Global Change Biology

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