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Species interactions and climate change in the loss of Joshua trees and the role of eco-arts for understanding multispecies connections


Human induced global change has greatly contributed to species loss with profound consequences for humans and other organisms. With the rapid pace of climate change and the slow adoption of sustainable actions, I argue that art-science integrated research can enhance our understanding of interspecies connections and support the development of sustainable societies. Working with iconic Joshua trees as a symbol of the nature/culture interface, I take an ecological, eco-art, and multispecies studies approach to understand the ways that climate change impacts the important symbiotic interactions that regulate Joshua tree distribution and how art can provide a meaningful connection to that work. First, I characterize and quantify populations of Joshua trees and their key symbionts – moth pollinators and mycorrhizal fungi – across a climate gradient in Joshua Tree National Park, to understand how their context-dependent associations change with climate and the resulting implications for tree survival. I found that moth number, trees number, and all measures of tree vigor peaked around the same elevation, but that the moths were not present at Joshua tree range extremes even though the trees were flowering at those locations. I also found that the reproductive success of Joshua trees is tightly linked to pollinator abundance, and the conditional outcomes (magnitude of the fitness benefit) of the mutualism change depending on where it occurs on the elevation gradient. Likewise, we found that fungal communities change with elevation, and that different fungal communities resulted in a spectrum of interaction outcomes from mutualism to parasitism that depended on the developmental stage of the plant. These are important examples of how climate change can impact species distributions directly (acting on either the moth, the fungi, or the Joshua tree) as well as indirectly by affecting the interactions between them. Next, I discuss my research findings in relation to the California Desert Protection and Recreation Act, highlighting areas where the Act falls short on Joshua tree protection and recommending future research and policy considerations. Finally, I discuss how those ecological findings, when colored by Donna Haraway’s multispecies studies approach, influence my multimedia social-practice art work Staying with the Trouble for Joshua Trees. My art practice engages diverse communities in the experience and discourse of species loss in three media: an experimental and conceptual painted soil study, a stop motion animation, and a mock online dating site to meet Joshua trees. Through this work I discuss how art can be a powerful tool for social change, both as an inquiry-based practice and a platform to share complex environmental issues with a diverse public.

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