Friday, November 16, 2012

Joshua Trees, Ice Age Sloths, Extinction, and Climate Change Today

With the end of the Ice Age, the giant Shasta ground sloth became extinct in our American Southwest deserts. This extinction happened as a result of the warming of the continent and invasion of humans into the land 13,000 years ago.  Today, the sloth is long gone, but the consequences of its extinction are still being seen to this day.  The Shasta ground sloth was intimately intertwined with every organism they ate, use, or associate with.  Of course, all organisms that inhabit this earth are intertwined in the same way with all the organisms they eat, use, and associate with both directly and indirectly.  This can be extended to show that all organisms are in one way or another connected.  If one organism is removed from an ecosystem, such as the ground sloth, every other part is affected and must adjust their life accordingly.

Unfortunately, not every organism is able to adjust to every change in an environment.  Such was the case of the Shasta ground sloth.  As the climate warmed, plants that inhabited the Southwestern deserts changed, changing the sloths food sources.  As food sources changed, the sloth could not adjust and as a result became extinct.  As a result, the plants and animals affected both directly and indirectly by the sloth had to adjust to "life after the sloth".  For example, the Joshua Tree was a major part of the sloths diet.  At first it may seem that extinction of something that is eating you might be a good thing.  At first, I could guess, the Joshua tree might have benefited greatly by the absence of a giant animal consuming it.  Long term however, the Joshua tree suffered greatly and continues to suffer to this day.  As the sloth ate the Joshua tree, of course this injured the plant.  However, as the sloth ate, it also consumed the Joshua tree seed which would pass all the way through the sloths digestive tract without being damaged.  Once passing though the sloths digestive tract the seed would find itself in a moist pile of fertilizer, which is an extremely ideal location to find yourself if you are a desert seed in desperate need of moisture and nutrients.  

With this association of the sloth and Joshua tree, the sloth benefited with food by eating the tree.  The
Joshua tree made a trade-off though, being damaged by the sloth as it was eaten, but benefiting from the sloth into the next generation.  The sloth aided the success of the Joshua Tree by likely aiding germination and by carrying the seeds to new locations up to ten miles away.  After the extinction, and up to the present day, only desert squirrels and packrats move Joshua tree seeds today, and only at a pace of about six feed per year.  As a result, the Joshua tree cannot adjust its range anywhere near as quickly as it could before and its range has been shrinking for over 10,000 years now.  How do we know all this?  Scientists in the Southwest have examined caves where sloth dung which tells us what the sloth ate.  Ancient packrat middens also have been examined which tell us where the Joshua tree was and when over the last 10,000 plus years.

With the ability to only change their range six feet per year, the Joshua trees range will continue to shrink in coming decades.  Currently, the climate is warming far to fast for the Joshua tree to keep pace.  This does not mean however the Joshua tree will go extinct.  It will be able to survive in cooler high elevation locations.  As the range of the Joshua tree is reduced however, organisms dependent on it will have to adjust.  For example, many species of rodents are dependent on moisture from the tree during times of drought.  These organisms access water from the tree simply by chewing through the bark to access water.  With the trees gone however, there will be far less water available to support rodents.  And so we see the continued consequence of the extinction of the sloth.

No comments:

Post a Comment