A new study led by the University of Stirling has revealed that several rare plants native to Scottish mountains could soon become extinct due to climate change, if no urgent measures are taken to protect them. Since plants found on the slopes of the Ben Lawers mountain range in Scotland – including the snow pearlwort, the drooping saxifrage, or the mountain sandwort – require a cool climate to thrive, the recent increase in global temperatures has led them to shift their range to higher ground. Moreover, some of these species, such as the snow pearlwort, have declined by over 66 percent since the mid-1990s, and may soon become extinct.
“Our research signals a rapid loss of biodiversity happening right now which means that, if it’s allowed to continue on this accelerated trajectory, due to climate change, we will see the extinction of species like these,” said study lead author Sarah Watts, a doctoral researcher in Ecology at the University of Stirling.
“What we are seeing here is range contraction – where species that grow in cold places, in the north and at high altitude, are moving further north and higher up the mountain. But at some point, they’ll have no further to go and will disappear. For example, drooping saxifrage is now only found 50 meters from the top of Ben Lawers.”
Moreover, global rises in temperature caused by climate change has also led to lowland species colonizing upland regions and outcompeting these rare mountain plants, significantly reducing the area they can grow and thrive in.
“In the context of the interacting climate change and biodiversity crises, this research has worrying global implications,” said study senior author Alistair Jump, a professor of Plant Ecology at the University of Stirling. “It shows that low-latitude, arctic-alpine plant populations already situated at maximum local elevations are effectively on the elevator to extinction. We face their loss from our mountains because there is no higher ground left for them to retreat to as temperatures continue to rise.”
According to the researchers, a solution to safeguard these endangered plant species is to move them to other sites, such as more suitable mountain habitats or even botanical gardens.
The study is published in the journal Biological Conservation.