Plant adaptation under a changing climate

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Many plants, and trees in particular, have been standing where they are today for 100s and even 1000s of years. How have they been able to cope with the changing conditions over such a long time? Will this intrinsic ability to stay put and cope with changing conditions help them survive the rapid and human-induced climate change of today?

Plants can’t move like animals: an individual plant can’t fly, run or swim into habitat that suits them more. But they can disperse their seeds a long way, and with a helping hand from animals or wind, their pollen can fly great distances too. So, does this ability to move their genes great distances hold the key to their survival through climate change?

A new review in the journal Conservation Genetics from researchers at the University of Adelaide explores what plants will need to do to avoid extinction under climate change. The authors provide an in-depth review of the evidence about how plants are responding to climate change. They extend their review into what is likely to be constraining plants from successfully responding to climate change today.

“The biggest challenge for plants is that their environment has been so drastically changed.” said lead author Matt Christmas. “The globe is a very different place now than during the pre-industrial era. Huge swathes of land have been cleared, fragmenting many plant populations, and climate change is racing away at a very fast rate. These are massive challenges for plants to overcome.”

How plants may overcome these challenges is one of the main focuses of this new review. Will plants establish in new areas after ‘migrating’ away from where they are today? Will pollen and seeds of plants come in from other populations to help them adapt where they stand today? Do plants have the intrinsic ability to use water more efficiently or to cope with hot spells and stay put?

After assessing the evidence of how plants have responded to climate change and what might be constraining plants to successfully respond to future climate change, the authors went one step further. They put forward practical solutions that should help plants overcome the long list of constraints to their future survival.

What can we do to help plants that need to migrate through an agricultural matrix? What can we do to help plants that are in small, isolated populations? Are some populations of plants more important for future survival of the species than others? The authors explore these and other questions to provide a framework of practical management options that connects the latest science on how plants are responding to climate change with what is likely to constrain plants from surviving through climate change into the future.

“A look to the future does raise global concern for plants,” said senior author Professor Lowe, Chair in Plant Conservation Biology at the University of Adelaide, “but with some smart evidence-based policies and goal-orientated decision-making, we – society – can maximise the chances that plants can continue to evolve and overcome these colossal challenges. They’ve done it before.”

The article is now available online


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