Virtual Reality Mapping Of Ancient Nature Reveals How Climate Change Affects Us All

Human activities are forcing changes in the global climate at an unprecedented rate.

Forest near Sarayaku, Ecuador. skifatenum, CC BY .

The Amazon and the adjacent Andean slopes in South America host an astonishing richness of plants and animals. These species have been sources of food, shelter, and medicine since the arrival of humans and a target of scientific curiosity since the days of the earliest European naturalist explorers.

What processes produce such hot spots of species richness, and why does biodiversity gradually decline towards higher latitudes and drier climates? Scientists have proposed many competing explanations, but there is no easy way to test them. As biogeographers, those of us who study the geography of life on the planet, we do not have the option of carrying out real-world experiments. It would be both impractical and unethical to undertake massive introductions or exterminations of species, and then wait centuries or millennia for results.

Instead, as reported in our recent study published in the journal Science, we brought together an interdisciplinary team of biogeographers and climate modelers to create a virtual world – a place to do virtual experiments. The world we recreated was a time-lapse simulation of life on the continent of South America, from 800,000 years ago up to the present, through the whipsaw climates of the last eight glacial cycles. If patterns of biodiversity produced in this simulated world produced reasonably realistic patterns of diversity, then we could be confident that the ecological and evolutionary processes built into the simulation were right.

What we found was a surprise beyond our fondest expectations. The maps of South American species diversity that emerged from our simulations looked remarkably similar to maps of living birds, mammals, and plants. What’s more, the simulations confirmed intermittent migration corridors between the Andes and the Atlantic Rainforest in southeastern Brazil. These regions are currently isolated from each other by drier climates, but scientists have long suspected that connections existed, based on the presence of closely related living species in both regions.

Virtual life in a virtual world

Each simulation began with a single imaginary species, seeded somewhere on a detailed topographic map of South America. In time steps of 500 years, totaling 1,600 steps in all, the climate was updated with a state-of-the-art paleoclimate model created by our colleagues Neil Edwards and Phil Holden at The Open University in the U.K.

In all, we ran more than 1,000 simulations, each with a different combination of settings for just four variables:

– How long a population must be isolated to become a new species

– How fast species can evolve to survive, in response to climate change

– How far a species can move across unsuitable habitat

– How strongly closely related species compete with each other.

Why was the strong correspondence between our simulated maps of species richness and the real-world maps for birds, mammals, and plants so surprising? Because our simulations covered only a tiny slice of time in the long history of South America. 800,000 years may seem like deep time, but South America separated from Africa 130 million years ago, and the Andes began their rise 25 million years ago. A growing list of South American plant and animal groups are now known to have diversified over the Late Quaternary Period – roughly the past 800,000 years – but most species on the continent are much older.

We also were surprised that our simulated maps resembled actual species richness patterns so closely, because our maps were not guided by any particular target pattern of diversity. They were built strictly on fundamental processes, as understood from basic research in ecology and evolutionary biology. For example, we modeled evolutionary adaptation to climate extremes using principles and equations from population genetics.

From cradle to museum to grave

Species alive today are survivors. They are the upper tips of evolutionary trees with many dead branches below, which represent extinctions in the past. Evolutionary biologists are now able to infer, in many cases, where the ancestors of living species may have lived. Regions where species proliferated in the past have come to be called “cradles” of speciation. For example, the Andean slopes have long been considered a hot spot of speciation.

Regions where species have persisted for especially long periods are called “museums.” Any region, such as the Amazon, where many ancient species persist can be considered a biogeographical museum. In contrast, reckoning where the dead branches in the evolutionary tree should be placed on the map – the “graves” – is virtually impossible by studying the geography of living survivors.

Through our simulations, we followed and mapped the entire “lifetime trajectory” of each virtual species, from cradle to grave, in space and in time.

As the climate changes from step to step in a simulation, the geographical range of a species (its location on the map) may be fragmented by unsuitable climate. If a fragment persists in isolation long enough, it is declared a new species. The time of fragmentation and the location of such a fragment during this period of isolation defines the “cradle segment” of its lifetime trajectory.

When and if a virtual species goes extinct, we record the time and plot on the map the location of the decline towards extinction, which represents the “grave segment” of the species’ lifetime trajectory. The time and place that each species persists between the cradle stage and grave stage defines the “museum segment” of its lifetime trajectory.

Our simulations produced maps of cradles, museums, and for the first time, graves. The maps confirmed that the eastern slopes of the Andes and the western Amazon are cradles of speciation. Graves of extinction coincided with cradles in some regions, such as the Amazon, and were displaced from cradles in others, such as the Andes. The eastern slope of the tropical Andes proved to be not only a cradle, but also a rich museum of biodiversity.

We also kept track of when speciation and extinction peaked and declined over the course of the simulations, and found that glacial cycles drove both processes. Peaks of extinction tended to follow peaks of speciation in periods of rapid warming at the end of cold glacial periods.

Climate dynamics and topography drive the patterns

Our study leads us to believe that patterns of richness for living species, regardless of a species’ age, have their origins in the same underlying processes that we modeled in the simulation. The interaction between the turbulent climates of the past 800,000 years, and the dramatic landscapes of South America, drove speciation in some younger groups of plants and animals, but shuffled the location of both young and ancient species in concert, indiscriminately.

Human activities are forcing changes in the global climate at an unprecedented rate, much faster than the climate dynamics in our model. We know that species are already on the move, their ranges shifting at alarming rates on land and in the seas, with profound effects on human life and livelihoods.

The ConversationAlthough our simulations were not designed to predict the future, they vividly reveal the dynamic power of climate change to shape life on Earth.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1889 at the Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria Salzburger located at Vorstadt 15, Alois and Klara Hitler brought a son into the world. They named him Adolph.

Little did they know he would grow up to be one of the greatest forces of evil the world has ever known.

The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

RELATED: He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

RELATED: 'High Castle' producers destroyed every swastika used on the show and the video is oh-so satisfying

In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

Center for American Progress Action Fund

Tonight's Democratic debate is a must-watch for followers of the 2020 election. And it's a nice distraction from the impeachment inquiry currently enveloping all of the political oxygen in America right now.

For most people, the main draw will be newly anointed frontrunner Pete Buttigieg, who has surprisingly surged to first place in Iowa and suddenly competing in New Hampshire. Will the other Democrats attack him? How will Elizabeth Warren react now that she's no longer sitting alone atop the primary field? After all, part of Buttigieg's rise has been his criticisms of Warren and her refusal to get into budgetary specifics over how she'd pay for her healthcare plan.

The good news is that Joe Biden apparently counts time travel amongst his other resume-building experience.

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via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

RELATED: The 1975's singer bravely kissed a man at a Dubai concert to protest anti-LGBT oppression

In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

RELATED: Alan Turing will appear on the 50-pound note nearly 70 years after being persecuted for his sexuality

Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?

via Gage Skidmore / Flickr and nrkbeta / flickr

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) dropped a bombshell on Tuesday, announcing it had over 900 emails that White House aide Stephen Miller sent to former Breitbart writer and editor Katie McHugh.

According to the SPLC, in the emails, Miller aggressively "promoted white nationalist literature, pushed racist immigration stories and obsessed over the loss of Confederate symbols after Dylann Roof's murderous rampage."

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