Thursday, June 15, 2017

Plants and climate change

Plants provide us with food, pastures for livestock, and places for recreation and wellbeing. They also directly and indirectly provide numerous invaluable ecosystem services such as water regulation, carbon sequestration and flood prevention. As a result, it is imperative that we understand how plant populations are responding to climate constraints now, and use that information to predict how they are likely to respond to climatic changes in the future.

In fact it might be very important to assess the persistence strategies of plants in any given habitat. Noting its mere presence does not paint a very useful picture as a species may be found in a particular area but that doesn't mean it is making much of a living there; it may, just, be making ends meet for the time being. An international group of ecologists tested the links between climate suitability and persistence strategies for nearly 100 populations of over 30 species of trees and herbs growing on 3 continents and 16 countries across the globe. Some of these data were gathered over the duration of a decade, allowing the researchers to identify emergent patterns linked to climate change with greater confidence.

What they found is that while many species are able to persist in less favourable climate conditions, those same species often do so by adopting last-stand strategies such as shrinking in size and temporarily suspending reproductive and vegetative growth. This merely helps them to survive and makes them more vulnerable to further changes and to disturbances such as wildfires or pest outbreaks. Many such disturbances are more likely today due to changing climates.

Not all plants have the life strategies to persist for extended periods of time in less favourable climates but our research is already helping to pinpoint those that do. One of the next steps is to design management strategies to help support these species and to safeguard the ecosystem services that they provide us.

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