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All plants on Earth could be saved from extinction

Just like animals, a variety of plant species are now struggling to adapt and survive on a human-dominated planet. Unfortunately, although they are easier and cheaper to protect than animals and play a crucial role in our food, fuel, and medical systems, plants are often overlooked in conservation efforts. 

Currently, an estimated 21 to 48 percent of vascular plant species – which include flowering plants and trees – are at risk of extinction due to land use change and unsustainable harvesting practices. 

However, according to a new study published in the journal Trends in Plant Sciences, it would potentially be possible to prevent the extinction of all 382,000 known plant species by training more plant experts, constructing an online “meta herbarium,” and creating “micro-reserves” (small pieces of protected land designed to get around spatial constraints).

“There is no technical reason why any known plant species should go extinct,” said study author Richard T. Corlett, a plant ecologist at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in Yunnan, China. “If zero extinction is potentially achievable for plants, a less ambitious target would be inexcusable.”

According to Corlett, conservation plans can take many forms. For instance, they can be carried out either in a plant’s natural habitat – such as in the form of a natural reserve – or in curated environments like botanical gardens. Sometimes, a combination could work best, such as coupling a micro-reserve with a supply of frozen seeds to fall back on if needed.

“Conservation of self-sustaining wild populations in protected areas is the ideal. This allows continued evolution in response to ongoing environmental change (such as climate change, and new pests and diseases) and the continued support of mutualists, herbivores, and pathogens, some of which may face extinction without their only plant hosts,” Corlett explained.

However, a significant roadblock in plant conservation is the lack of trained specialists that could identify and study plant species that are currently invisible to science and conservation planning. Scientists believe that such species are abundant in the tropics, with many of them undergoing “dark extinctions,” which occur when species disappear without us even knowing that they existed. 

Another barrier in preventing plant extinctions is information access. Since at present, the most reliable species records come from plant specimens and are difficult to use from a distance, building an online “meta herbarium” where scientists all over the world could link digitized records from herbarium specimens with photographs, status assessments, recovery plans, and links to other online resources would be of great help in boosting conservation efforts. 

While such an online database would allow facile and rapid access to information needed to conserve all plant species, building it will require collaboration at the individual, national, and global levels.

“There are some major areas that need more research, but most of what is needed is not novelty but a lot more of the same: more people, more space, more funding, more monitoring, and more of the local interventions that work,” Corlett concluded.

Importance of plants to humanity and the environment

Plants play a crucial role in the lives of humans and the environment for various reasons. They have been essential to our survival and well-being throughout history, and continue to provide countless benefits today. Some of the most important aspects of plants’ significance include:

Oxygen production

Through the process of photosynthesis, plants convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into oxygen (O2). This oxygen is vital for the survival of all aerobic organisms, including humans.

Carbon sequestration

Plants absorb and store atmospheric CO2, which helps to mitigate the effects of climate change by reducing the overall amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Food source

Plants form the base of the food chain for most ecosystems, providing sustenance for various organisms, including humans. Fruits, vegetables, grains, and other plant-based foods are essential components of a healthy diet.

Medicinal uses

Many plants have medicinal properties that have been used for centuries to treat various ailments. Over 25% of modern medicines are derived from plants or plant compounds.

Ecosystem support

Plants create habitats for diverse flora and fauna. They provide food, shelter, and breeding grounds for countless species, promoting biodiversity and ecological stability.

Soil conservation

Plants help to prevent soil erosion and maintain soil fertility through their root systems. They also contribute to nutrient cycling by decomposing and releasing nutrients back into the soil.

Climate regulation

Plants help to regulate local and global climates by absorbing and reflecting sunlight, providing shade, and releasing water vapor through transpiration. This process cools the surrounding environment and influences precipitation patterns.

Cultural significance

Plants have been an integral part of human culture for thousands of years, used in rituals, ceremonies, and art. They also serve as symbols and inspiration for various aspects of life.

Economic value

Plants are essential for various industries, such as agriculture, forestry, and horticulture. They provide valuable resources like timber, fiber, and raw materials for the production of numerous products.

Aesthetic and recreational value

Plants provide natural beauty and recreational opportunities, which can positively impact mental health and well-being. Green spaces, such as parks, gardens, and forests, offer places for relaxation, exercise, and social interaction.

In summary, plants play a vital role in sustaining life on Earth, providing essential resources and services for both humans and the environment. Protecting and conserving plant life is crucial for maintaining the delicate balance of our ecosystems and ensuring a sustainable future for all.

How climate change is impacting plants

Climate change, driven primarily by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, is having significant impacts on plants and ecosystems around the world. Some of the key ways climate change is affecting plant life include:

Changes in phenology

Phenology refers to the timing of seasonal events in the life cycles of plants, such as flowering, leafing, and fruiting. As temperatures rise, many plants are experiencing earlier spring growth and delayed autumn senescence. These shifts can lead to mismatches between plants and their pollinators or other species that rely on them, disrupting ecosystem dynamics.

Range shifts

As climate conditions change, the suitable habitat for many plant species is shifting, often towards higher elevations or latitudes. This can lead to the decline of some species in their traditional range, while others may expand into new areas. Range shifts can also result in novel plant communities and interactions between species that have not previously coexisted.

Biotic interactions

Climate change can alter the relationships between plants and other organisms, such as herbivores, pathogens, and mutualists. Warmer temperatures and changes in precipitation can increase the prevalence of pests and diseases, while also affecting the abundance and distribution of beneficial species like pollinators.

Drought and water stress

Changes in precipitation patterns and increased evaporation due to higher temperatures can lead to more frequent and severe droughts. This can cause significant stress for plants, reducing growth, reproduction, and survival, particularly for species adapted to moist conditions.

Heat stress

Increased temperatures can result in heat stress for many plant species, potentially causing damage to cellular structures, impairing photosynthesis, and reducing overall productivity. Some plants may be able to adapt to higher temperatures, while others may experience declines in growth and reproduction.

Increased CO2 levels

Elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations can stimulate photosynthesis and increase water-use efficiency in some plants, leading to increased growth. However, this “CO2 fertilization effect” may be offset by other factors, such as nutrient limitations, heat stress, and changes in precipitation.

Ocean acidification

As CO2 dissolves in seawater, it causes a decrease in pH, making the ocean more acidic. This process, known as ocean acidification, can have negative impacts on marine plants, particularly calcifying organisms like corals and some species of algae, which rely on calcium carbonate to build their structures.

Extreme weather events

Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as storms, floods, and heatwaves. These events can cause widespread damage to plant communities, disrupt ecosystem processes, and lead to increased mortality.

Loss of biodiversity

The combined effects of climate change on plants can lead to local extinctions and overall declines in biodiversity. This loss of plant diversity can have cascading effects on the ecosystems they support, reducing ecosystem resilience and stability.

In conclusion, climate change is having profound impacts on plant life worldwide, with consequences for ecosystems and the services they provide to humanity. Addressing climate change through mitigation and adaptation strategies is essential to protect plants and the vital roles they play in sustaining life on Earth.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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