News / Science & Technology

Study: Plants Might Lack Traits Needed to Cope With Climate Change

Plants have evolved defenses, like dropping their leaves, to adapt to cold, harsh climates. (Simon Uribe-Convers)
Plants have evolved defenses, like dropping their leaves, to adapt to cold, harsh climates. (Simon Uribe-Convers)
Rosanne Skirble
A new study suggests that modern flowering plants, trees and agricultural crops may not have the characteristics, or the time, to respond to rapid human-induced climate change.
 
The report in Nature looks at how plants evolved to cope with cold in the past, but finds these same mechanisms may not provide the same defense against human-induced climate change.

Survival traits
 
Flowering plants lived in warm tropical climates 243 million years ago. Since then, they have spread across the planet into much harsher places. George Washington University ecologist Amy Zanne and her colleagues wanted to understand how the plants survived in a colder environment. 

  • Sunrise through an oak-hickory forest canopy at Tyson Research Center, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. (Jonathan Myers)
  • The leaves of a sugar maple start to yellow as winter approaches, Tyson Research Center, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. (Jonathan Myers)
  • An ornamental cherry tree loses its leaves in the fall at the Tidal Basin, Washington, DC. (Amy Zanne)
  • A frost covered dandelion head spreads as winter arrives at the University of Idaho Arboretum, Moscow, Idaho. (Simon Uribe-Convers)
  • A birch leaf turns a bright yellow as winter approaches, Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri. (Amy Zanne)
  • Maple leaves change colors before they fall in Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC. (Amy Zanne)
  • Early winter brings out the reds and oranges on sugar maple trees at the Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri, USA. (Amy Zanne)
  • Buckeye leaves emerge in the spring after the winter frost at Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri. (Amy Zanne)
  • Newly emerged tulip poplar leaves in spring after winter frost at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, Robbinsville, North Carolina. (Amy Zanne)

They identified three traits that help them do that: dropping their leaves before the winter chill, narrowing the cells that transport water from the roots to the leaves, and dying back to the ground and re-sprouting from their roots or seeds in the spring.     
 
“The next bit was, we wanted to not just look at where species are today and whether they are seeing freezing or not, but to try to understand the evolution of these characteristics and the order of the evolution of those characteristics or those traits,” Zanne said.  

Evolutionary tree

To do that, the researchers constructed the largest-ever time-scaled evolutionary tree of 32,000 plant species. They then compared the emergence of those adaptive traits with big changes in the Earth's climate to reconstruct how plants evolved with the cold as they spread across the globe. 

LISTEN: Plants Might Lack Traits Needed to Cope with Climate Change
Study: Plants Might Lack Traits Needed to Cope with Climate Change i
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

“We saw for all three of the traits, there was a really strong support for finding a shift into freezing and also a shift in the trait. And so to tough it out and deal with the cold, what they did was they made these narrower pipes so that they wouldn’t get these air bubbles that blocked the water through the stems," Zanne said. "So they could maintain that stem by keeping those small pipes.  Or what they did was they dropped their leaves. So they didn’t have to keep their leaves from year to year. Or the third thing that they did was they avoided or hid from the cold altogether by becoming herbaceous.” 

Herbaceous plants have leaves and stems that die back to the ground in winter. 
 
Zanne says one of the most significant findings was that the changes occurred even before the plants' range extended into colder environments.  
 
“So what we found was that plants before they even confronted the cold, they typically already had skinnier pipes and they already had become herbaceous," she said. "So they responded already to some other pressure. And so maybe it was a dry environment or something like that and that these characteristics, these traits were then really useful for dealing with the cold. So they went into the cold well armed to handle those cold temperatures.”  
 
Zanne and her team also plan to study plants in warm or dry environments. The study suggests that modern flowering plants, trees and agricultural crops may not have the traitsor the time neededto cope with human-induced climate change.

You May Like

Uganda Court Annuls Anti-Gay Law

Court says law was passed in parliament without enough members present for a full quorum More

Multimedia Thailand Makes Efforts to Improve Conditions for Migrant Laborers

In Thailand, its not uncommon for parents to bring their children to work; one company, in-collaboration with other organizations, address safety concerns More

In Indonesia, Jihad Video Raises Concern

Video calls on Indonesians to join Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
In Thailand, Some Efforts to Improve Conditions For Migrant Laborersi
X
Steve Herman
August 01, 2014 6:22 PM
Thailand has been facing increasing international scrutiny as a hub of human trafficking and slave labor. Some of the kingdom’s companies are striving to improve working conditions, especially for the millions of migrant laborers from surrounding countries. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok takes a look at one initiative for children at construction sites
Video

Video In Thailand, Some Efforts to Improve Conditions For Migrant Laborers

Thailand has been facing increasing international scrutiny as a hub of human trafficking and slave labor. Some of the kingdom’s companies are striving to improve working conditions, especially for the millions of migrant laborers from surrounding countries. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok takes a look at one initiative for children at construction sites
Video

Video Public Raises its Voice on Power Plant Pollution

In the United States, proposed rules to cut pollution from the nation’s 600 coal-fired power plants are generating a heated debate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charged with writing and implementing the plan, has already received 300,000 written comments. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, another 1,600 people are lining up this week at EPA headquarters and at satellite offices around the country to give their testimony in person.
Video

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict in Gaza, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities. Probably the most important destination is the local bakery. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Gaza City.
Video

Video China Investigates Powerful Former Security Chief

The public in China is welcoming the Communist Party's decision to investigate one of the country's once most powerful politicians, former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang. Analysts say the move by President Xi Jinping is not only an effort to win more support for the party, but an essential step to furthering much needed economic reforms and removing those who would stand in the way of change. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US-Funded Program Offers Honduran Children Alternative to Illegal Immigration

President Obama and Central American leaders recently agreed to come up with a plan to address poverty and crime in the region that is fueling the surge of young migrants trying to illegally enter the United States. VOA’s Brian Padden looks at one such program in Honduras - funded in part by the United States - which gives street kids not only food and safety but a chance for a better life without, crossing the border.
Video

Video 'Fab Lab' Igniting Revolution in Kenya

The University of Nairobi’s Science and Technology Park is banking on 3-D prototyping to spark a manufacturing revolution in the country. Lenny Ruvaga has more for from Nairobi's so-called “FabLab” for VOA.
Video

Video Immigrant Influx on Texas Border Heats Up Political Debate

Immigrants from Central America continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas, seeking asylum in the United States, as officials grapple with ways to deal with the problem and provide shelter for thousands of minors among the illegal border crossers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the issue is complicated by internal U.S. politics and U.S. relations with the troubled nations that immigrants are fleeing.

AppleAndroid