Saturday, June 22, 2013

Life and Death in the California Chaparral

A favorite past time of mine involves going out and exploring wild areas and always keeping an eye out for clues that may provide insight into how Mesozoic ecosystems may have worked. These "deep time eco-philosophical sojourns" are both relaxing and stimulating to the mind, body and spirit. And since I have started to approach my hikes in this manner I have slowed down a bit on my walks to really soak things in as well. But I am also getting older with shaky knees, a sloshy ankle that likes to roll a lot, and of course a questionable back (sciatic pain). Never the less I do believe that by exploring modern ecosystems, even our largely angiosperm/human modified landscape, clues are offered up. And since I am blessed enough to live in California, rich with diverse flora/fauna. microhabitats and a largely frost free Mediterranean climate, one could do a lot worse in terms of comparisons to putative Mesozoic environments.

And here in southern California one of the more unique and interesting biomes is the chaparral. Combined with the coastal sage scrub biome these two vegetative communities cover about 9% of the state. People who come to California from more wetter climes, especially the east coast, bemoan the lack of hard-wood forests and show a general disdain for this most Californian of vegetative types. It is also inherently a fire-modified landscape and plants here show abundant adaptations towards living through and proliferating after fires. But how often and how strong these fires should be is still up for debate. Recently the concept and importance of old growth chaparral has been gaining momentum.
The California Chaparral Institute has dome much to fight the "shrubphobia" that is threatening many of the older stands some over 100 years old. While fire no doubt has always played a role in this community the question is how often? Human induced fires, which follow lock-step with human population increase may be doing more harm than good. Many species in the chaparral need an accumulation of at least 30 years of leaf litter to germinate and communities that have not had fire for over 100 years are doing just fine as opposed to dove-tailing into some type of ecological senility.

Given that high temperatures, oxygen levels, and high CO2 levels promoted a fire regime during the Cretaceous it was with much interest that I set out to explore two fire modified areas in southern California recently.

The Camarillo Springs fires, which started in early May, likely were precipitated by low precipitation and unseasonably warm/windy conditions. After the popular trails that traverse this area of the Santa Monica mountains were opened up again I hiked the Chumash Trail, a fairly rigorous but short hike from sea level to the top of Mugu peak (1267 ft) which is actually a 7,000 year old shortcut from the inland valley to the sea used by the Chumash Indians.

One of the more interesting things I noticed was that many of the plants were already showing signs of regrowth. Check out this prickly pear with some new pads already springing up and into life less than 3 months after the fires. Likewise many  of the ubiquitous shrubs like laurel sumac,
manzanita, and chamise were already re-sprouting new growth from the base despite lack of rainfall and summer temps.

The landscape itself was reduced to its bare essentials, a skeleton of its former self cut from ash, carbon, rock, and charcoal. In this almost Mars like terrain I pictured what a semi-arid Mesozoic landscape would have looked like after being ravaged by fire. Where I saw stands of yucca, many still with green fronds towards the middle, I pictured stands of prickly cycads. For the sclerophylous shrubs I imagined some type of conifer type plant, maybe a cheirolopediacea or a
juniper looking plant, burnt down to its bare essentials. The ferns, moss, and lycopsids burnt and completely carbonized, just like the grasses that replaced them today. Where I saw a tangle of cacti I imagined dense, burnt, twisted benetiales.

Near the top of Mugu peak I found some holdouts. A cottontail rabbit, california thrashers, a herd of mule deer subsisting on a patch of vegetation spared by the fire. From these survivors future generation shall arise. The following spring should prove especially bountiful for the survivors with rich nutritious plant growth spurred on by the ash fertilizer.

As devastating as these pics are the area will be substantially greener by next spring and fire damage barely visible in 2-3 years. I also recently visited Cold Springs trail in Montecito. After sharing tea with Oprah (step aside Steadman) I headed up through a lush riparian gorge into the chaparral. The only obvious sign of damage from the Montecito Tea Fire of 2008 were old burnt stumps.
But these were surrounded by thick stands of reemerging vegetation from the original plant. I imagine this lush plant growth was lush browse for the deer and rabbits. Perhaps I will one day draw a stand of fire ravaged trees, but with green emerging root sprouts providing lush fodder for a herd of therizinosaurs....

Anyways enjoy the rest of the photos below of ferns, wildflowers, moss crusts and historical waterworks from this trail.

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lyuti said...

Hello, I like your choice of looking for the way mesozoic ecosystems could do it, instead of mainly focusing on this or that dinosaur.
Though I don´t share your opinions about mammals being more destroyers of watersprings sourrondings than dinos were, well cats crop smells like hell, but pigeon crop is so acid that is able of taking off the painting of a car, i feel im not explaining it very well.
There is a game i like to play when i see a landscape, triying to imagine how could primitive man chase and forrage there. Difficult to figure out.
sorry for my english. Regards.

Duane Nash said...

Thanks for comment lyuti, Yeah bird crap of course is very bad stuff, there are some 80 ft eucalyptid trees near me on the coast that have just outright been killed by nesting cormorants- and ironically I was just scraping bird crap off my truck 15 minutes ago. My main argument as to why large herbivorous dinos put less stress on riparian systems than large mammalian herbivores is that uric acid producing animals "lose" less water than urine producing mammals and hence need to drink less on average and can go longer between drinks than mammals. Granted I am painting with a very large brush here and of course all bets are off on a 1 to 1 basis, a massive 80 tonne sauropod is gonna do a lot more damage than any urine producing mammal of any size. But consider this; imagine you have one 80 tonne sauropod in a seasonally arid ecosystem versus 80 tonnes of lets say wildebeest in a similar ecosystem. Per unit pound of flesh the 80 tonnes of wildebeest are going to be doing a lot more footfalls, eat, crap, piss and drink a lot more than the sauropod. The large sauropod may slate its thirst using its neck without even entering the riparian zone and with minimal footfalls. Sure the footfalls are each impactful, but there are much less of them and the damage is highly localized, compressive in nature rather than shearing in nature like hoofed mammals. In fact all types of dinos had more splaying, soft, and spreading feet than hoofed herbivorous mammals. And after that sauropod has slated its thirst it may go for some time before drinking again- I don't know maybe a week?...., so that during times of water stress it is less beholden to one water source for fear of dying of thirst and its impact is spread out. I don't know how many documentaries of mammals on the African savanna during the dry season depict water stressed mammals staying in the vicinity of a water hole, depleting both the riparian and neighboring vegetation- and not being able to travel away because at best they can do 2-3 days. In short my argument is based on uric acid vs urea in terms of water lost and big, leathery, splaying feet vs sharp, pointy hoofs.

I also play the primitive man in the landscape game, usually I think I end up feeling pretty hungry.

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