Academic Minute Podcast

Daniel Lewis, California Institute of Technology – Redwoods: Adaptive Giants

Some species will adapt to a warming world.

Daniel Lewis, lecturer in the humanities and social sciences division at the California Institute of Technology, details one.

Daniel Lewis is a college professor, writer, and environmental historian in Southern California. He is also the Dibner Senior Curator for the History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library, in San Marino, California. He won an Emmy in 2019 for his work on a documentary on women in aerospace, and is the author of four books.

Redwoods: Adaptive Giants

Coast redwoods – sequoia sempervirens – are spectacular trees, reaching nearly 400 feet, the tallest plants on the planet. They thrive mostly in a narrow strap of land in the Pacific northwest of the United States. They have grown huge by the slow accumulations of moisture and rich alluvial soil over millennia, and by the genetic payload pushing them to the upper limits of tree height.

The redwoods, like all trees, are engineered marvels. We don’t tend to think of natural things as “structures,” leaving that term to stand in for buildings, bridges, and dams. But although trees weren’t built by humans, they didn’t just happen. They are built, just as humans are built: coming into their own through the inexorably turning wheels of natural selection and evolution, responding to environmental pressures, genetic drift, and mutation. They are born to change, just as we are born to change. Evolution is usually a very slow process, although sometimes, as abundant scientific evidence now shows, it’s surprisingly quick, as new, intense pressures of a warming and changing climate speed things up.

The coast redwood has instructions for us about survivability, helping to counteract the narrative of climate-driven decline. One survey of nine large redwood trees has yielded a total of 137 species of lichen, several new to science. One of them was Xylopsora canopeorum, its specific name celebrating the canopy where it was discovered. The lichen seems to be unique to the warmer and drier forests south of the trees’ primary range. This is an exciting finding, for it provides evidence that new forms of life—ecosystem partners—may be evolving in synch with trees that are also evolving in the face of climate disruptions.

Read More:
[Simon & Schuster] – Twelve Trees

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