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Climate change triggers migration of thousands of plant species

We all know the phrase “the grass is always greener…”, but what if there’s literally no greener place to go? That’s the reality facing many plant species in Brazil’s Cerrado. They’re stuck in a race where the finish line is a mountaintop, and the climate change won’t stop chasing them.

But it’s not a straightforward disaster – new research shows that the story might be about winners, losers, and a whole lot of uphill battles.

Cerrado plants and climate change

A new study by scientists from Brazil and Europe has looked at how warming temperatures might force over 7,000 plant species in the Cerrado to move. Plants, like animals, have a geographical range.

This is the area where the temperature, rainfall, and general conditions make it just right for them to survive and grow. Climate change is messing with those perfect conditions, and plants are feeling the heat – literally.

“Every plant and animal species has a ‘geographical range’ – the area where conditions are suitable for it to live,” said Mateus Silva, from the University of Exeter.

Cerrado ecology

Think of the Cerrado as a smaller, but no less incredible, cousin to the Amazon rainforest. It’s a place packed with roughly 12,000 flowering plant species. From towering trees to delicate orchids, the Cerrado’s plants purify the air we breathe, support vast networks of wildlife, and sustain indigenous communities.

Sadly, this ecological treasure chest is under siege. Relentless conversion for agriculture and cattle ranching has eaten away roughly half of the Cerrado. This destruction doesn’t just mean lost beauty – it unravels delicately balanced ecosystems, jeopardizes countless species, and disrupts the natural services these landscapes provide, like water cycling and climate regulation.

The damage to the Cerrado has consequences far beyond Brazil. As climate change intensifies, preserving biodiverse regions like the Cerrado is becoming increasingly urgent. These complex living systems may hold solutions to problems like excess carbon or degraded soil.

Uphill Cerrado plants due to climate change

As temperatures rise globally, many plants instinctively seek cooler havens at higher altitudes. “As the climate warms, plants’ ranges are shifting, with many species going uphill,” said study co-author Mateus Silva from the University of Exeter.

This uphill migration reveals nature’s resilience – even slow-moving plants adapt to survive. Yet, this strategy has stark limits. Lowland plants may find some refuge uphill, assuming they can move fast enough to keep pace with the changing climate and aren’t blocked by human-made obstacles.

But the climb brings a hidden cost: it squeezes those already at higher elevations. Plants on mountaintops have no escape. As temperatures increase, they face a shrinking world with nowhere left to climb.

The outlook for 2040

This study paints a concerning picture for the Cerrado’s plants. It’s estimated that around 150 plant species will be in critical danger by 2040, losing a huge chunk of the area where they can live.

“About half of Cerrado plant species will experience a net range loss due to climate change by 2040,” said Silva. “And more than two thirds (68-73%) of the Cerrado landscapes will see a net loss in species numbers.”

“Virtually the entire Cerrado area will experience some level of species replacement due to climate change, and this will be most intense in highland areas. Meanwhile, lowland areas will have less plant diversity as some species become unable to tolerate the new conditions.”

The “optimistic” worst case scenario?

The scientists call their predictions “optimistic.” Why? Because they’ve only looked at the impact of changing temperatures and rainfall. They haven’t yet factored in the Cerrado’s terrible habitat destruction or the tangled mess of how one species being affected can have a ripple effect on others.

“The range loss highlighted by our study will be compounded by this habitat loss and fragmentation, which makes it harder for species to move to new areas,” Silva added.

Cerrado ascends as climate changes

The Cerrado’s highlands are unique. They aren’t like the lowlands, offering cooler temperatures and different conditions. Since those uphill areas are likely refuges, they need special conservation efforts tailored to their unique needs.

The study looked specifically at the short-term future for a reason – these are the time frames in which conservation efforts could make a real difference.

“It’s also important to note that our study did not examine interactions between species – this complex ecology is also likely to play an important role,” said Silva.

“At this stage, we wanted to highlight the likely impact of large-scale patterns. The Cerrado highland areas reach 700-1,200m above sea level and they provide different conditions from the lowlands, highlighting the need for distinct conservation actions.”

Remember, the Cerrado is a remarkable and irreplaceable part of our planet. Its thousands of plant species, some of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world, are in a race for survival. Climate change is pushing them uphill, but human destruction is cutting off their escape route. While the science is important, it’s time to move beyond simply watching and start taking serious action.

The study is published in the journal Diversity and Distributions.


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