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Plants with short lives are more sensitive to climate change

A new study shows that certain plant characteristics such as generation time can predict how sensitive species are to climate change. An international team of researchers led by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) set out to investigate how plant populations have responded to climate change over time. 

To address this question, the experts collected all of the relevant data available worldwide, which was mostly from Europe and North America. The investigation revealed that plant species with short generation times are more sensitive to climate change than species with long generation times. 

According to the researchers, their work has important implications for predicting which plant species need the most protection and conservation attention.

Climate change is one of the biggest threats to plant diversity. In order to protect biodiversity, it is critical for experts to understand which species are the most urgently threatened and where. 

The iDiv team compiled all long-term studies on plants that measured population growth rates. The experts assessed how climate factors, particularly precipitation and temperature, influenced the growth rate during each study period. 

The researchers then analyzed how specific features of a plant species, such as the length of a generation, influenced its growth responses to climate variation in the past.

“We were able to show that generation duration is a useful indicator value for a species’ susceptibility to climate change,” said study first author Dr. Aldo Compagnoni. 

For example, the experts found that plants with short lifespans, including those that only live a few years, suffered much more from climate extremes than long-lived species. 

The researchers also clarified that rising temperatures were not the main climate-related factor that limited plant growth. On average, precipitation had a three times greater impact on plant populations than temperature.

“This work helps us identify which species might be climate-vulnerable, even if we have limited information about those species,” said study co-author Professor Tiffany Knight. 

“For example, while we have long-term population data for a small subset of plant species on Earth, we can estimate the approximate generation duration for most plant species. This is an important first step towards determining species’ vulnerability to climate change at a global scale.”

At the same time, however, the experts noted that there are important data gaps that limit the ability to make general predictions on a global scale. The researchers found suitable long-term datasets only for 62 of the 350,000 plant species on Earth, and the vast majority of these were species occurring in temperate zones.

The study authors conclude that to be able to make reliable predictions about the consequences of climate change for all regions of the world and all known species, new population ecology research is needed on woody plant species and plants in the tropics.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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