Size, seed dispersal key to survival of Arctic plants facing climate change: study
"Genetic variation is crucial for species to adapt to changing climate"
New research shows that a warming climate will have different impacts on plants in the Arctic.
The new study, prepared by scientists from Norway, Austria and France shows that while many species are expected to lose part of the habitat as the climate changes, the genetic consequences on plants will vary among the different species.
A team of researchers analyzed almost 10,000 samples from 27 plant species in the Arctic and certain alpine environments in Central Europe.
The results show that species that use wind and birds to spread their seeds will lose less of their genetic diversity in a warmer climate than species that have a very limited way of distributing seeds.
Size matters too, researchers found. Trees and shrubs are usually taller and have a longer lifespan than herbs, making them able to better preserve their genes than many of smaller herb species.
Genetic diversity, which explains the number of genetic characteristics of a species, serves as a way for life forms to adapt to a changing environment.
“Genetic variation is crucial for species to adapt to changing climate,” said researcher Inger Greve Alsos, associate professor at the University of Tromsø in Norway.
“If a species with limited seed dispersal perish from an area, it means that this species as a whole will experience an irrevocable loss of genetic diversity.”
One example of this is glacier crowfoot, a tiny white and yellow flower that grows on mountain tops.
The plant has little gene flow between its populations and so it expected to lose a large part of its genetic diversity in a warming climate, Alsos said.
A plant like dwarf birch, which distributes its seeds with the wind and can live more than 100 years, will fare better in a warmer climate.
The study showed that some species could lose up to 80 per cent of their habitat, but still retain over 90 per cent of their genetic diversity.
Other species might lose only half of their genetic diversity if their habitat is reduced by 65 per cent.
“This study is the first to use empirical data to estimate loss of genetic diversity by loss of habitat for several plant species under different climate scenarios,” Alsos said.
“These results showcase how important it is to emphasize the variations within a species.”
The research should have a major impact on future conservation efforts, she added.
The research was published in a study called “Genetic consequences of climate change for northern plants,” released this month.