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Shock Discovery: Some Plants can Adapt to Climate Change

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

Scientists at the University of Sydney have made the remarkable discovery that when climatic conditions change, plants don’t all drop dead – some “rule breaking” plants adapt and thrive in the changed conditions.

‘Rule breaking’ plants may be climate change survivors

11 February 2020

Can invasive plants teach us about climate adaptation? Plants that break some of the ‘rules’ of ecology by adapting in unconventional ways may have a higher chance of surviving climate change, according to new research.

Plants that break some ecological rules by adapting to new environments in unconventional ways could have a higher chance of surviving the impacts of climate change, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Sydney, Trinity College Dublin and the University of Queensland.

Professor Glenda Wardle, from the University of Sydney’s Desert Ecology Research Group, is one of the founding members of the international PlantPopNet team that coordinated the global collaborative research.

“The study is exciting as it is the first publication from the PlantPopNet team,” she said. “We were able to attract researchers from around the world to study in their own backyard, at a low cost. It’s a humble plant but it has the right mix of interesting biology to be a model for how plants might respond to altered environments.”

Dr Annabel Smith, from UQ’s School of Agriculture and Food SciencesProfessor Yvonne Buckley, from both UQ’s School of Biological Sciences and Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, and PlantPopNet studied the humble plantain (Plantago lanceolata) in an attempt to see how it became one of the world’s most successfully distributed plant species.

“We hoped to find out how plants adapt to hotter, drier or more variable climates and whether there were factors that made them more likely to adapt or go extinct,” Dr Smith said. “The plantain, a small plant native to Europe, has spread wildly across the globe – we needed to know why it’s been so incredibly successful.”

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The Plantain isn’t the only plant which has spread. When British colonists arrived in Australia, plenty of the farm crops they brought from temperate Britain did just fine in much warmer Australia. For example, strawberries are a prized delicacy in Britain, but with a little shade and water during dry spells, they grow just as well in tropical Queensland.

Given the vast range of climatic conditions under which pretty much every staple food crop and food animal survives, suggestions that a warmer climate would be any kind of threat to agriculture or even the natural environment are absurd.