Earning a living in a changing climate – the plant perspective

Researchers have found that plants are resorting to dramatic strategies in order to survive deteriorating environmental conditions. These strategies enable the species to survive less favourable environments, but not to thrive under them.

The research, led by an international consortium of experts, tested the links between climate suitability and persistence strategies. Dr Roberto Salquero-Gómez, an Independent Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, leader of the COMPADRE Plant Matrix Database, used this open-access resource to analyse the data of nearly 100 populations of over 30 species of trees and herbs spanning 16 countries and 3 continents.

“We calculated demographic indexes of species resilience and importance of various demographic processes, such as survival, growth, shrinkage, recruitment, for each species' population growth rate to provide more mechanistic explanations to where organisms live,” said Dr Salquero-Gómez. 

By developing species distribution models that are based on demographic processes, the team could determine whether a species is present in a given environment. 

What they found is that while many species are able to persist in less favourable climate conditions, they have to do so by adopting last-stand strategies such as shrinking in size and temporarily suspending reproductive and growth effort. 

The last-stand strategies make these species more vulnerable to further changes and disturbances such as wildfires or pest outbreaks that are now more frequent due to changing climates. 

“We have been able to take the first step towards predicted patterns of species distributions that allow us to pinpoint the mechanisms for risk of invasion or extinction,” said Dr Salquero-Gómez. 

“In collaboration with Australian researchers, we are now testing whether we can go one step more mechanistic: using functional traits to make distribution predictions. This would be useful because demographic data are relatively expensive and time-consuming to collect, whereas functional traits of various populations within a species are not.”

Read the full article: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ele.12794/epdf