Micro-climates may help save plant species as global temperatures rise

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EUREKA, Mo. – Missouri Botanical Garden researchers are using the diverse landscape at Washington University’s Tyson Research Center in Eureka, Missouri to find what kind of landscapes can buffer plants against climate change.

“For example, we know that for some plants, their pollen dies when it reached 95 degrees, so they won’t reproduce. On the other hand, a lot of the plants around here need seeds to go below freezing for a certain number of days in the winter or they won’t germinate,” said Adam Smith, a global change conservation scientist with the Missouri Botanical Garden.

The large-scale warming of the planet is likely to shift the range of species but small‐scale temperature differences near the ground may modify these shifts.

“It’s about 54 degrees in St. Louis. But out here at Tyson, I can go on top of a ridge or down in a valley and I can find almost a 10-degree difference,” Smith said.

This means a cold‐adapted species might survive in a sheltered cove or on a north-facing bluff where the temperatures stay cooler than surrounding areas.

Starting over the summer, field techs like Katie Skinker worked at 35 different plots, surveying trees and seedlings, and recording temperature and soil moisture readings from homespun weather stations.

“We’d just record data like that to kind of get the diversity here, the growth here, things like that,” Skinker said.

Their goal is to identify landscape features that can buffer against climate change.

“Climate change affects each part of the world differently,” Skinker said. “But overall, the issue is that it is happening so quickly that species like our red oak may not be able to adapt quick enough to just how warm the summer might be.”

“It’s important to identify places that say remain very cool and perhaps moist for these plants so they survive in the future,” Smith said.

Researchers are now crunching the summer data.

The weather stations are still up and running and will record data into the winter months as well.

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