Conserving the Dunes of Baja California

The peninsula of Baja California is home to miles of pristine coastline—some of the longest stretches of undisturbed coast in North America. Prime spots for future development of luxury homes and resort hotels, the area’s coast and the sand dunes associated with it are at risk of environmental degradation.

Entomologists from the Museum, along with scientists in Mexico, are studying the insects of these unique ecosystems in order to understand the ecology of these dunes. The goal is to provide data that allows decision makers in Mexico to better conserve and manage this precious resource. 

Living in dry sandy soils can be tough and requires special adaptations. Those special adaptations make some insects really good at living in dunes, but not well-suited for living in other habitats. Over time, these species have evolved to become sand specialists and are only found in dunes. The same dry conditions challenge the plants. As a result, insects have coevolved with the plants they pollinate, and the endemic plants and insects are essential to each other. Although scientists have a good understanding of the distribution of dune-specialist plants on the dunes of the peninsula, our knowledge of the insect distribution there is in its infancy.

Who cares? If we know about the plants, isn’t that enough to make informed conservation decisions? Unfortunately, no. The fact plants potentially can be grown in another spot can become an excuse for development of pristine areas with promises of restoration mitigation in other areas. (“We can develop this area and replant the endemic plants over here and recreate the habitat.”) As it happens, however, restoring a habitat requires more than just planting the right plants. To inform conservation and management so that an ecosystem can thrive, we need to understand the diverse organisms in it—and that includes insects.

Museum entomologists are in the first year of this project, which includes extensive field work, sampling of dune insects by teams from both sides of the border, a genomic study, and a dune “summit” of key researchers and representatives from government agencies and conservation organizations. Data will be shared with managers of regional protected lands and with CONABIO, Mexico’s government agency in charge of biodiversity and conservation science.

 


Posted by The Nat.

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