What is Telecoupling? Part 2

Written by: Jackie Hulina

Primary Source: Human+Nature Blog

When last we met, I threw a bunch of jargon around (What is Telecoupling?).

If you’re anything like me, you wonder what all this jargon is and why it’s necessary. Systems and agents might make sense, but how do you decide which ones are relevant?  What is a flow and how do you measure it? You thought you understand causes and effects, but now you’re questioning what that even means. Then there’s the biggest question of them all: how is telecoupling any different than collecting and sorting a bunch of previous research?

Systems describe places where humans and their activities somehow interact with the environment and/or its inhabitants.

For the Kirtland’s warbler, there are two major systems: breeding and wintering habitats. Recall from our Michigan Recipe for KW that breeding systems are generally characterized by young jack pines, cowbird removal, and lots of habitat management. Wintering systems are similar in habitat structure, but very different as far as human involvement due to complex land ownership laws.

Technically breeding and wintering systems can each be referred to as “sending” or “receiving,” depending on your perspective.  Since seasonal variations (ex. temperature, rainfall) in the Bahamas affect Kirtland’s warblers’ breeding success, it makes the most sense to classify wintering systems as “sending” and breeding systems as “receiving.”

~ Interesting fact: Drought in the Bahamas causes Kirtland’s warblers to arrive
later for the breeding season, which reduces their breeding success.
See paper here. ~

The spillover systems can be anything that affects or is affected by the sending/receiving systems.    Admittedly, this is a much more abstract idea.  We tend to have less information about anything that is not a direct cause-effect relationship, but indirect relationships can be crucial – especially collectively.  Since we don’t know much about them, spillover systems pose a huge opportunity for further research.

Kirtland's warbler, telecoupled graphicThink about it in terms of migration.  Kirtland’s warblers migrate from one place to another, but are they stopping anywhere in between? If so, where? Any stopover sites during migration would be considered spillover systems.  If for some reason stopover sites were becoming less suitable for KW (ex. habitat fragmentation, reduced food sources), populations would decline even if every aspect of breeding and wintering systems was perfect.

If migration doesn’t suit you, think about it in terms of spreading ideas.  There are people who live nowhere near jack pine forests that have heard of Kirtland’s warblers – especially with the help of the internet!  Some extreme birders have traveled to see KW in their natural habitat, spent money in local shops, and brought what they learned back to their hometowns.  Ideas spread, people feel motivated to give money to the cause, and overall there is political support for continued habitat management.

Agents are any decision-makers that change flows of information, energy, or materials between systems.

Kirtland’s warblers are agents that convert food to fat stores (aka energy) for migration between systems.  A variety of government agencies, NGOs, and the general public act as agents that share ideas and money to influence policy.  Other agents may develop habitat for business goals, or purposefully disturb habitat at particular time intervals to sustainably manage habitat for KW.

The major cause of the telecoupling is that Kirtland’s warblers migrate for food availability.  Other causes of complexity in the telecoupling include the impacts of climate change, brood parasitism by cowbirds, lots of communication between government agencies, and a cultural responsibility to help species that are declining because of human activities.

What is happening because of the telecoupling that otherwise we would not see?  Effects are the environmental or socioeconomic results of interactions between systems.  For example, the study mentioned earlier on drought in the Bahamas leading to reduced breeding success is an ecological effect of the telecoupling.

How is this different than just dressing up collections of previous research with a fancy name?

To an extent, it is – telecoupling is a new term used to describe systems that already exist.  Scientists have studied many pieces of the Kirtland’s warbler telecoupling, but we’re only just starting to study the interactions between those pieces.

Scientists who have begun applying methods to study interactions generally stick within their respective disciplines.  Those that recognize the interactions between human activities and the environment either focus on a single location or ignore interactions with outside systems that affect habitats.

As we’ve seen with Kirtland’s warblers, all of those interactions matter and they are all addressed by telecoupling.

As a scientist, I now have to figure out how to ask questions to learn from those interactions.  Wish me luck.

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Jackie Hulina
Jackie Hulina is a master's student in the Michigan State University's Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability. Jackie Hulina began at CSIS in the fall of 2013. After spending her undergraduate years working with a variety of animals, including wolves, penguins, and porcupines, Jackie developed an interest in working with endangered/threatened species. Her research at MSU will focus on applying the telecoupling framework to Kirtland's warblers.
Jackie Hulina

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