Plants can deal much better with changes in climate than previously thought

Non-native species found thriving in the USA

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Plants are much more resilient to changes in the climate than previously thought, according to a new study which finds numerous examples of species thriving in regions that have entirely different weather to their native habitats.

Research into 51 native European plant species that have been introduced to the US found that 22 of them were primarily growing in climates noticeably different to where they were originally found.

Examples include the Twoscale saltbush, the Maritime Pine, the Bristle-seed sand-spurrey and the Urtica urens nettle.

The report's author, Dr Regan Early of Exeter University, likens the change in the plant’s behaviour in their new climes to her 60-year-old parents going on holiday to New Zealand and bungee-jumping off the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

“Have you ever gone abroad on holiday and done something totally out of character? Well, it’s not just humans that can undergo a transformation when they travel abroad,” Dr Early said.

Furthermore, the narrower the climate-range a species inhabits in its native territory the greater the transformation when they went abroad.

Take the Balkan Catchfly, or Silene cserei, Dr Early says. This grows sparsely in the Balkan states and Ukraine but is thriving in the US from the Mid-West to the mountain ranges that line the West Coast – places with far colder winters and much hotter, drier summers than back in Europe.

“To go back to my British tourist analogy, it’s like you took a plane-load of Brits to Benidorm, and it’s the most timid and unassuming member of the group that goes absolutely crazy and has to be bailed out of a Spanish police station,” said Dr Early.

Her findings are at odds with the general, but unproven, consensus that species continue to inhabit the same kind of environments when introduced to new areas as they do back home, Dr Early said.

Although the climate certainly plays a role in determining whether a species can survive in a given environment, a bigger factor is the species around them – the insects, funghi and viruses which variously compete with them for resources, kill them or nourish them.

The good news from this research is that climate change, in itself, isn’t likely to decimate and scatter species as much as first thought because factors such as increased temperatures or decreased rainfall don’t pose as big a risk to survival as previously thought. But the bad news is that the conditions needed for a species to prosper are more complicated than had been thought, making it much harder to predict – and adapt to - the impact climate change will have on the surrounding environment – potentially causing a plant to disappear entirely.