Genotypes 2

2 January 1999

There’s an ecologist in Massachusetts that Henry Kock loves to quote, named Reed Noss, who maintains that, « Nature is not only more complex than we think, but more complex than we can think.’’

It’s difficult to warm to this quotation, because the idea that something is impossible to understand runs smack into the human ego. Western civilization has thrived on the belief that the scientific method can master any enigma. And now that we’re about to achieve the god-like power to recreate ourselves through cloning, the impossible is an impossible thought.

But not for Kock. He accepts the idea of unfathomable complexity. He is an interpretive horticulturalist at The Arboretum at Guelph University with a close-up view of the web of interconnections that exist within nature. And of how changes can ripple through the web, even altering other ripples.

We haven’t come close to identifying all the interconnections, even within one species. And the ripple effects are beyond calculation.

For instance, I mentioned that I had never seen so many cones on the spruce trees near our house. He nodded. “It’s the largest seed crop in memory,’’ he said. Not only with white spruce, but with sugar maples, red maples, elms, white pines, cedars, beeches, and white oaks.

He collects tree seeds from across Ontario for research at the arboretum. Trees go through cycles in seed production. Over two or three years, they’ll build up to a heavy crop, and the following year there’ll be none.

His best guess is that it’s a survival technique. The trees increase seed production to keep ahead of population growth among seed-eating birds and animals. And then they quit for a year, so that the bird and animal populations will dip, and the cycle can begin anew. In 1984, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1995, and 1998, seed production peaked.

But production in 1998 was enormous. Why? No one knows, because no one can track all the stimuli — temperature shifts, amount of daylight, rainfall patterns, pest concentrations, soil conditions, wind patterns, a hundred and one different interactions, each with its ripple effects. « My personal theory is that it’s because the trees are coming under greater and greater stress,’’ Kock says.

That, to me, spells climate change, especially since the 1998 phenomenon happened everywhere in the province, and therefore can’t be attributed to strictly regional influences.

Does he agree? Instead of answering, Kock gently shifts the conversation.

Scientists, he says, are discovering that trees are producing more pigment in their leaves. They’re doing this to protect the chlorophyll they contain from an increase in ultraviolet rays which could damage their ability to convert sunlight into growth. (Ozone depletion, which allows more ultraviolet light to reach the earth, has been a companion development to global warming.)

Since trees can alter their makeup like this without going through genetic change means they’ve been through this before, says Kock. Their ability to respond, which was probably acquired as the last ice age advanced and then retreated, is stored in their genes.

But will that genetic ability to adapt be sufficient if climate change happens relatively quickly? If it isn’t sufficient, will trees be able to migrate quickly enough to survive, seeding farther and farther north as temperatures rise?

Nobody knows for sure, says Kock. The only hope is to protect the old trees, the matriarchs, that have proved they can flourish in their particular location.

The same kind of tree may grow across a wide expanse of Ontario, but every different location — some less than a county in size — will have its own matriarchs, its own genetic type, or genotype as Kock calls them. Their genetic structure will be unique to that spot.

We don’t know which genotypes will be best able to adapt to climate change. So, says Kock, we need to protect the matriarchs in every possible location.

His challenge offers the best hope we have of passing on the heritage that has meant so much to us.

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