Global Warming’s Unseen Effects on Plants and Butterflies
Many of the effects of climate change and global warming — such as the recent strangely snowless, mild winter on the East Coast — are too apparent. New research in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences (PNAS) entitled “Divergent responses to spring and winter warming drive community level flowering trends” shows that wild plant species previously thought to be “stable” and to be unaffected by climate change are actually responding to it.
Researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) found that wild plants that had been thought to be resilient to the past 20 to 50 years’ warming trends because they did not bloom earlier were “actually responding to climate temperature change in a manner that is not as easily seen as in plants that exhibit earlier flowering in response to an advanced spring.” These plants have been responding to warmer winters by delaying flowering.
The plants in question (490 species of plants on two continents) require “vernalization,” a chilling requirement — that is, many of these plants require a temperature drop in fall and winter “as a cue to become dormant until the spring flowering season arrives.” With the warming trends in winters, the plants have actually been delaying their blooming cycles in “an effect that compensates for the advanced flowering brought on by an earlier spring.”
As one of the study’s co-authors, Elizabeth Wolkovich of the University of British Columbia, says in Science Daily,
Right now, these species appear to have not changed much over time, but all of our understanding of basic plant physiology suggests they will shift their flowering dramatically in the future.
The study of such “divergent responders” is needed, to get a better sense of how different ecosystems are changing as winters become warmer and spring arrivers sooner and to “support the need for models incorporating diverse environmental cues” in the fight against climate change caused by us humans.
Another study in Science describes how the UK’s Brown Argus butterfly has responded to climate change by changing its diet to Wild Geraniums. As these are widespread in the British countryside, then butterfly’s dietary change has resulted in them expanding their range “at a surprising rate.”
The Brown Argus butterfly had been considered scarce in Britain in the 1980s but it has now “spread northwards by around 79 kilometres and has become common in the countryside in much of southern England.” As Professor Jane Hill, of the Department of Biology at the University of York and a co-author of the study in Science says, “There will be winners and losers from climate change” — hopefully studies such as this study and that in PNAS can give scientists a better view of where to focus conservation efforts, as the world changes in ways seen and unseen.
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