Picture of a valley oak tree.

One of California’s iconic tree species offers lessons for conservation

Picture of a valley oak tree.

The valley oak, the largest oak in California, grows to over 100 feet tall and provides habitat and food for a variety of animals. Photo credit: Victoria Sork/UCLA

 

With increasing regularity, Californians are witnessing firsthand the destructive power of wildfires. But not everyone sees what happens after the flames die down, when debris is cleared, homes and lives rebuilt — and trees replanted to help nature recover.

New research led by UCLA evolutionary biologist Victoria Sork examines whether the trees being replanted in the wake of California’s fires will be able to survive a climate that is continuing to warm.

The study, which is published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, focuses on California’s iconic valley oak. The research is among the first to demonstrate the potential of using genomics to inform conservation strategies — essentially giving species an evolutionary boost. The study showed that planting trees that are genetically better suited to higher temperatures makes them more likely to survive and grow to maturity.

“When we think about managing ecosystems under rapidly changing climates, we have to realize trees need to be able to survive past 50 years,” Sork said.

The paper also discovered something surprising: The valley oak, an essential component of many ecosystems in California, is already poorly adapted to its environment — even considering climate conditions in 2019.

“They actually seem to grow better in cooler climates than they’re in right now,” said Luke Browne, a postdoctoral scholar at the UCLA La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science and the study’s lead author. “They might grow better if climates were more like they were 21,000 years ago, during the last ice age.”

During the peak of the last ice age, summer temperatures were about 4 to 5 degrees Celsius colder, and ice covered most of Canada and mountainous areas of the U.S.

In the fields of conservation and land management, it is a common assumption that plants and animals are adapted to their environments — that’s how evolution and natural selection are supposed to work. The new research casts doubt on that assumption.

The study is part of an ongoing project initiated by Sork and Jessica Wright, an expert in conservation genetics at the USDA Forest Service, more than 10 years ago.

Researchers gathered 11,000 seeds from 94 locations throughout the trees’ range, which stretches from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Cascade foothills in the northern part of the state. They grew them to saplings in a greenhouse and planted them in two large experimental gardens, in Chico and Placerville, California. They tracked how well trees from different locations grew, and sequenced the genomes of their mother trees to link genetic information and growth rates.

The researchers then identified which genetic variants would be more likely to thrive as climate change continues to warm California. They predicted that, under predicted future warmer temperatures, trees containing beneficial genetic variations would have 11% higher growth rates than the average for all of the trees in the experiment, and 25% higher growth rates than the trees without the beneficial variations.

Information like that could help the U.S. Forest Service, for example, in its efforts to restore forests with species that have the best chance for long-term survival.

“Studies like this one provide valuable insights that help land managers make informed decisions on reforestation projects,” Wright said. “When planting trees in a particular location, managers have to decide where to collect the acorns.”

By 2070, average temperatures in the state are projected to be up to 4.8 degrees warmer than they were during the mid- to late 20th century.

“That’s going to have consequences for how fast these trees grow,” Browne said. “We’re at a challenging time to figure out the best way to do conservation science. This paper shows one approach we could use that takes advantage of modern genomics.”

The study did not determine why valley oaks are not well adapted to their environment. It might be because the climate has already warmed up so much, the trees’ long lifespans — up to 500 years — or some other, unknown factor.

The valley oak is the largest oak in California; it grows to over 100 feet tall, and has dark green leaves and a deeply grooved trunk. It is considered a foundational species because it provides habitat and food for a variety of animals, including squirrels, birds, deer and insects. In parts of the state, it is one of the only species of tree that exists. Valley oaks provide benefits to humans, too: filtering water and providing shady places to escape the heat.

Although it focuses on the oak, the paper has broader implications for conservation science in a changing climate — especially for species that evolve and adapt slowly. That’s what Sork and Wright were thinking when they initiated the project.

At the time, they hoped to find conservation strategies that could eventually be implemented using genetic information alone — without extensive field experiments.

“Not everyone in the world is going to be able to collect 11,000 seeds and plant them in a common garden,” Sork said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

UCLA historian Kelly Lytle Hernández awarded MacArthur Fellowship

Kelly Lytle Hernández, a 2019 MacArthur Foundation Fellow, is one of 14 UCLA faculty to be chosen for the honor. Photo credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

UCLA professor Kelly Lytle Hernández, an award-winning author and scholar of race, mass incarceration and immigration, was announced today as a recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Lytle Hernández, who is a professor of history and African American studies, is the director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, which under her leadership has focused on supporting research into two critical themes in the modern black world — work and justice. The Bunche Center is home to Million Dollar Hoods, which maps the fiscal and human cost of mass incarceration in Los Angeles. Lytle Hernández is the director and principal investigator on the project.

“Lytle Hernández’s investigation of the intersecting histories of race, mass incarceration, immigration, and cross-border politics is deepening our understanding of how imprisonment has been used as a mechanism for social control in the United States,” the foundation said.

The MacArthur Fellowship is a $625,000, no-strings-attached award to people the foundation deems “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals.” Fellows are chosen based on three criteria: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of accomplishments, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work. Lytle Hernández is one of 26 individuals the foundation selected for fellowships in 2019.

“As a scholar, I both work deeply alone and deeply in community, but until very recently the scholarly communities I’ve worked in — immigration and the carceral state — have been fairly separate,” said Lytle Hernández, who holds the Thomas E. Lifka Chair in History at UCLA. “I hope my work has helped people understand immigration as another aspect of mass incarceration in the United States and that my award further helps people understand that these two regimes are intertwined. This award will help us continue this work across communities and shine a light on this kind of thinking that unites these two crises that others often see as distinct.”

Lytle Hernández, 45, received a her bachelor’s degree from UC San Diego in 1996 and earned her doctorate in 2002 from UCLA.

For her first book, “MIGRA! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol,” Lytle Hernández pored over historical records to illuminate the border patrol’s nearly exclusive focus on policing unauthorized immigration from Mexico.

In “City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles,” she began zeroing in on another dimension of race and law enforcement, specifically what forces shaped Los Angeles so that it came to operate the largest jail system in the United States.

“What I found in the archives is that since the very first days of U.S. rule in Los Angeles — the Tongva Basin — incarceration has persistently operated as a means of purging, removing, caging, containing, erasing, disappearing and otherwise eliminating indigenous communities and racially targeted populations,” Lytle Hernández said in an interview about the book.

The MacArthur Fellowship, which is commonly referred to as the “genius grant,” is according to the foundation, intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual and professional inclinations. Recipients may be writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs, or those in other fields, with or without institutional affiliations.

Lytle Hernández joins 13 other UCLA faculty as MacArthur fellows, including mathematician Terence Tao, choreographer Kyle Abraham, director Peter Sellars, astrophysicist Andrea Ghez and historian of religion Gregory Schopen.

While unsure of her specific plans for the award, Lytle Hernández said that she will continue to expand the scope and scale of her social justice scholarship, including with partners outside of UCLA.

“I’d like to create a space for myself and others — especially community organizers and movement-driven scholars — to write,” she said, noting that these people’s calendars tend to be jammed by the “urgency of their work.” “I’d like to create space that allows myself and others to process the work that we’re doing and to share it.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

College Senior José Gonzalez is on a Mission to Understand Autism

L to R – Megan McEvoy, Jose Gonzalez, Gina Poe,

UCLA senior José Gonzalez is on a mission to move the needle on autism research. With the support of COMPASS, his family and his mentors, he is well on his way.

The California native was raised in a small Central Valley town in the heart of the state’s agricultural greenbelt. All five of José’s siblings earned college degrees—a point of great pride for his parents, who were unable to receive an education past the sixth grade.

“My parents always stressed the importance of higher education as the way to move up,” Jose said.

José’s father, originally from Mexico, works as a foreman in the citrus orchards of The Wonderful Company, which provides college scholarships and other incentives for their employees’ children who maintain good GPAs. That financial assistance helped the Gonzalez children pay for college.

In his sophomore year, José began participating in COMPASS and received the Life Sciences Dean’s Award, which provides stipends allowing students to pursue research work rather than work at part-time jobs. He has benefited from the invaluable guidance and mentorship of UCLA faculty and COMPASS co-directors Megan McEvoy and Gina Poe, scientists who have helped José navigate the challenges of a science degree.

Now a senior, José works in the lab of one of the world’s leading autism experts, Dr. Daniel Geschwind, studying genes that regulate developmental pathways integral to brain development. José’s decision to study autism was spurred when his nephew was diagnosed with the disorder, and he says the experience has been transformative.

“Without COMPASS, I would not have had the chance to work in Dr. Geschwind’s lab or be on the career trajectory I’m on now,” he said.

José’s goal is to become a pediatric neurologist with his own lab at a university, much like his mentor, Dr. Geschwind.