The threat of ensuing climate change has led many to consider what the future might look like for life on earth. Plant life will undoubtedly be affected, and numerous observations have already been made indicating that plants and plant communities are responding to changing climates.
A recent study, published in Ecology and Evolution, documented changes in the lower elevation boundaries and elevation ranges of common plants found on the Santa Catalina Mountains (near Tucson, Arizona). A study of this caliber is rare because there is relatively little data available to observe such changes over a long period of time. The scientists that carried out this study were able to use survey data collected by Robert Whittaker (the father of modern plant ecology) and William Niering in 1963. Whittaker and Niering conducted an extensive survey of plants along the Catalina Highway, which still exists today and runs along the southern slopes of the Santa Catalinas. Following similar data collection methods, researchers from the University of Arizona surveyed plants along the Catalina Highway nearly 50 years after the original survey. What they found confirmed predictions: montane plants in the southwest are responding to a warmer and drier climate by shifting their lower elevation limits upward.
The average annual air temperature in this region has increased an average of 0.25 degrees Celsius per decade since 1949. Also, rainfall has decreased significantly since Whittaker and Niering’s original plant survey. Twenty seven of the most common plant species were selected from the new survey and compared to the original survey data. Fifteen of the twenty seven species (56%) have significantly shifted their lower elevation boundaries, moving further up the slopes of the mountains to escape higher temperatures and reduced rainfall. Some of the plant species have also shifted their upper elevation boundaries, with four of them moving further upslope and eight of them moving further downslope.
The authors of this study state that “even a casual observer could recognize changes in plant elevation boundaries.” Alligator juniper, bracken fern, beargrass, and sotol are examples of plants in the Catalinas that have noticeably migrated upslope and are no longer found at lower elevations where they were once common. Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana), for one, was once documented growing at least as low as 3500 feet, but now does not occur until after the 5000 feet mark.
This rare opportunity to compare current plant survey data with old data paints a stark picture regarding the effects of climate change. As plants and animals are forced upslope to escape warmer and drier climates, they may eventually find themselves with nowhere to go and ultimately end up extinct, reducing overall biodiversity on the planet. The authors of this study conclude their findings with this statement: “The shifts in plant ranges we observed in the Santa Catalina Mountains indicate that the area occupied by montane woodland and conifer forests in the Desert Southwest is likely to decrease even more with predicted increases in temperature, and that regional plant community composition has and will continue to change with further warming as plant species respond individualistically to changing climates.”
Read more about this study at the University of Arizona news site.
Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana)
photo credit: wikimedia commons