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Insects, plants living in agricultural regions are surprisingly resilient

"It is good news that the catastrophic loss of all species is less likely, but we still need to work hard to restore biodiversity," said researcher Tom Oliver.

By Brooks Hays
Insects, plants living in agricultural regions are surprisingly resilient
Bumblebees and weed species like thistle persist in regions dominated by large-scale farms. Photo by John Redhead

Sept. 18 (UPI) -- Plants and pollinators that have survived the impacts of agriculture intensification are more likely to survive future environmental changes, new research suggests.

Researchers at the Center for Ecology and Hydrology and the University of Reading surveyed six million records of pollinator-plant interactions collected by citizen scientists over the last 30 years. The analysis revealed pollinator-plant communities, or ecological networks, vary across different landscapes.

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Across landscapes with higher concentrations of farmed acreage, scientists found hardier weeds like thistles and bramble persist in greater numbers than elsewhere. Similar agricultural regions are also home to larger concentrations of generalist pollinators, like bumblebees.

In effect, industrial farms have mostly weeded out the most vulnerable species. What remains are ecological networks consisting of more adaptive and resilient species.

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"We think that the plants and pollinators that remain in these landscapes represent the toughest species that can handle the stresses of intensive agriculture -- the vulnerable ones are already long gone," John Redhead, a researcher at the Center for Ecology and Hydrology, said in a news release.

"This means that they're also able to cope with many future changes, so although we hear about reported declines our wildlife, this may buy conservationists some time before we start to see the remaining plants and pollinators in agricultural areas really suffer," Redhead said.

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Redhead and his colleagues identified several species that have suffered as agriculture has expanded, including pollinators like shrill carder bees and brown banded carder bees, as well as flowers like corn marigold and horseshoe vetch.

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Scientists say important conservation work must still be done to ensure species pushed out by agriculture have places of refuge.

And despite their adaptive qualities, even hardier species that remain in agricultural regions will need help to survive climate change.

"It is good news that the catastrophic loss of all species is less likely, but we still need to work hard to restore biodiversity to give these ecosystems the best chance under growing threats of climate change and pollution," said Tom Oliver, professor at the University of Reading.

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Oliver, Redhead and their colleagues published their findings this week in the journal Ecology Letters.

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