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Even Gradual Climate Change Can Push Plant Species Past a Tipping Point

Scientists have demonstrated that, in the face of climate change, alpine plant populations may sit at cliffs' edge in more ways than one. Some plants initially compensate for the physiologically taxing effects of persistent warming with increased growth rates or expanded ranges. But new results from long-term studies show that even a gradual climate change can push a species past its tipping point, leading to a sudden population crash.

Determining where trade-offs and thresholds exist helps scientists better anticipate biological responses to climate change. Studies like this will help them predict which species may be able to adapt to increased temperatures and which may be most vulnerable.

For cold-adapted plants such as moss campion and alpine bistort, warmer temperatures in recent years have meant hard times for young individuals, with decreases in their establishment and survival, especially at southern range limits. Working at four different sites in Colorado, Alaska and Canada, Daniel Doak of the University of Wyoming and William Morris of Duke University followed plant populations for six years. The team documented increased growth rates among plants at lower latitudes, meaning that individual plants spend less time in smaller, more fragile stages of life. The plants' fast-tracking to more stable life stages temporarily compensates for the greater vulnerability of new recruits, preventing population collapse in the short term. But in the warmest years, even larger plants begin to succumb to the heat. At that point, the stability provided by a larger base of young individuals has been eroded, and total population size plummets.

As global climate change leads to more warm years, we need to understand how rapidly plant and animal populations may respond to changes in their preferred temperature ranges. This study demonstrates the need to include long-term population measurements from across a species' range and life history.

Image

  • A pink moss campion flowering on the side of a rocky cliff face
A moss campion plant
Tracy Feldman

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