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Thinking big

Protecting ecosystems could begin with the restoration of the largest species

by Beth Staples

Shifting ecosystems: The Falkland Islands

Video transcript

Kit Hamley:
Raindrops going about 70,000 miles per hour!

Dulcinea Groff:
It hurts!

Jacquelyn Gill:
In the Falkland Islands, we have this really interesting system where you’ve got islands that have no native mammals. They’re home to some of the most important penguin and other sea bird colonies in the world. They’re also home to a lot of people that make their livelihoods through fisheries, tourism and also sheep farming. The settlers brought sheep to those islands in the 1800s.

Dulcinea Groff:
I am researching the history of the island over the last 11,000 years. I’m looking at how the plants and animals have been influenced by a changing climate. What we learn from the past can tell us a little bit about how things might change in the future to better prepare people there.

Dulcinea Groff:
We want to know the difference between tussock grass charcoal, and say, wood charcoal. Right? There are no native trees in the Falkland Islands. If there was wood burning, then …

Kit Hamley:
… It’s a good indicator that humans were probably there.

I’m interested in a species of fox that was only found in the Falkland Islands, and has since been hunted to extinction. When Europeans arrived in the Falklands, there’s this species of fox there called the warrah. But there are no humans there, and no other land mammals which, really for me, raise the question of why is the warrah there, and how did it get there. So that’s one of the things I’m really interested in figuring out, as how this fox got to this isolated oceanic islands.

Dulcinea Groff:
In the Falkland Islands, there’s a really unique plant called tussock grass, and it grows really tall. It forms peat. It’s also really important habitat for lots of sea birds and marine mammals.

Jacquelyn Gill:
It towers over your head when you can get in these little tunnels in the tussock. You might turn a corner and see a sea lion there, or some penguins waddling along. And you quickly understand how important this grass is, because the wind is extremely ferocious there in the Falklands.

So there’s this nice symbiosis right where the grasses provide the habitat, and they get the benefit of the nutrients. So then of course, you bring in the human side of things. And humans are bringing these sheep to the islands. The sheep are eating the grasses, and causing disturbances in the grasses. That has effects then on the penguins. But you can’t just say, “Let’s build a fence, and keep the sheep out,” because this is people’s livelihoods.

Dulcinea Groff:
The tussock grass is really important to hold down the actual land. It’s preventing erosion from happening. With an increase in extreme weather events, like storms and increasing erosion, having this fringe of tussock grass on the landscape is really important. It could encourage people to conserve or preserve the tussock grass and improve some of the restoration habits.

Kit Hamley:
Understanding how that introduction of a fox could impact the sea birds that are bringing nutrients from the marine environment onto the terrestrial environment, and then in turn, how that affects plants, is really important to understand those linkages.

Dulcinea Groff:
Conserving this habitat is really important for the sea birds. There are thousands and thousands of tourists that come there each year to see the really unique wildlife that’s there.

Kit Hamley:
In regards to specifically what I’m studying, I think one of the big take homes for this will be that we’ll have a better understanding of how ecosystems respond to introduced species and to extinctions. I think having an understanding of how ecosystems have responded in the past, both introductions and extinctions, is really important in order to plan for or understand what we might see in different environments.

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