Plant Adaptation to Stressful Environments
First-Year Student as Scholars Seminar
Dr. Stephen Davis, Distinguished Professor of Biology, Pepperdine University
The primary goal of this course is to provide students a fundamental understanding of the process by which science advances our understanding of the natural world and the validity of an empirical approach to knowing and learning. This course investigates the relationship of plants to California's stressful environment. We who chose to live at the urban-wilderness interface of the Malibu campus of Pepperdine University also chose to live with recurrent wildfire and summer drought as natural ecosystem processes. We must not only respect the destructive capacity of wildfire but also learn to appreciate the benefits of fire. Many indigenous species of plants are "fire dependent" -- their seeds do not germinate and they do not thrive without fire. Some seeds only germinate after detecting smoke from burning wood. Many species vigorously resprout after shoots are incinerated.
From an ecological perspective, local ecosystems are not destroyed by fire but require fire for renewal and rejuvenation. Wildfire increases plant vigor, promotes recycling of nutrient resources, increases biodiversity, diminishes exotic weeds, and favors productivity. The services rendered by the native plants that carpet the hillsides above the Pepperdine campus are numerous and are provided at low cost to humans. These native plants deter soil erosion, increase slope stability, return soil water to the atmosphere, provide cover and food for wild animals, are aesthetically pleasing, offer recreational activities, yet require no irrigation, pruning, or fertilizer. All of these benefits are now being threatened by intensified environmental stress brought about by anthropogenic climate change.
Students in this course will examine the effects of climate change on native plant survival and potential shifts in plant community structure now in progress.