Scientists: climate change is causing decline of specialised plant species

Jun 21, 2012

Climate change has impacted on upland plants and vegetation over the past half century, new evidence from north west Scotland has revealed.

Research funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has revealed for the first time the on mountain landscapes.

The pioneering work was carried out by the University of Aberdeen and supported by the Hutton Institute and Bergen University, Norway.

Dr Louise Ross of the University of Aberdeen and colleagues reassessed study plots throughout north west Scotland last surveyed by pioneering botanists Donald McVean and Derek Ratcliffe 50 years ago

Species which increased the most prefer warmer, drier and more acidic conditions. Grasses increased at the expense of dwarf shrubs; flowering plants and lichens.

Scientists now warn that in some cases these changes may be irreversible, leading to permanent changes in our landscapes.

They found evidence of a widespread loss of variety in across whole mountain landscapes. This is directly causing a reduction in the distinct identity of parts of the Scottish Highlands.

The decline of plant diversity could mean mountain habitats are less able to cope with future environmental change: whether climate-related or pests and diseases.

Scientists found plant variety declined and previously distinct communities have merged into those dominated by more common and widespread plants.

By examining these plant communities in minute details the researchers found changes due to temperature, rainfall and acidification above and beyond grazing impacts.

Commenting on the results, lead author Dr Louise Ross said: "It is striking that one consequence of climate change is the loss of the specialist species adapted to cool, wet conditions.

"We may see the disappearance of some specialist habitats in the far northwest of Scotland, where they are being replaced by more uniform grass-dominated vegetation. This homogenisation' effect is a worrying indication of the loss of plant diversity in the Scottish landscape."

Professor Des Thompson, principal advisor on biodiversity for Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) stressed: " is affecting Scotland's mountain vegetation. We may be at an early stage in unfolding events as a result of greenhouse gas effects.

"It is extraordinary to think that we are now reaping the rewards of Donald McVean and Derek Ratcliffe's pioneering field work 50 years ago.

"Back in the late 1950s they endured harsh conditions as they recorded in great detail the composition and abundance of different plants and vegetation. Their work makes it plain we have to avoid the loss of unique elements of Scotland's nature.

"That means we also find ways to reduce other land pressures and improve habitat management where it is driving current declines. That means, for example, finding better and more sustainable ways to manage grazing pressures."

Professor John Birks, a specialist in upland vegetation at the University of Bergen, Norway, who collaborated in the work commented: "This research is pointing to the need for more work to plan for losses of vulnerable plant communities especially the northern heaths rich in liverworts that are confined in Europe to north west Scotland.

"We clearly need to have more specialist surveys such as that reported here in order to detect and predict changes. We have evidence of climate-related changes in the flora and vegetation in the mountains of Norway, but this study is an important first for the north west part of the UK."

Explore further: Call for alternative identification methods for endangered species

More information: The research paper: Biotic homogenization of upland vegetation: patterns and drivers at multiple spatial scales over five decades, Journal of Vegetation Science (2012): www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1654-1103.2012.01390.x/abstract

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Scientists tether lionfish to Cayman reefs

3 hours ago

Research done by U.S. scientists in the Cayman Islands suggests that native predators can be trained to gobble up invasive lionfish that colonize regional reefs and voraciously prey on juvenile marine creatures.

India's ancient mammals survived multiple pressures

22 hours ago

Most of the mammals that lived in India 200,000 years ago still roam the subcontinent today, in spite of two ice ages, a volcanic super-eruption and the arrival of people, a study reveals.

User comments : 0

More news stories

Scientists tether lionfish to Cayman reefs

Research done by U.S. scientists in the Cayman Islands suggests that native predators can be trained to gobble up invasive lionfish that colonize regional reefs and voraciously prey on juvenile marine creatures.

Deadly human pathogen Cryptococcus fully sequenced

Within each strand of DNA lies the blueprint for building an organism, along with the keys to its evolution and survival. These genetic instructions can give valuable insight into why pathogens like Cryptococcus ne ...

Leeches help save woman's ear after pit bull mauling

(HealthDay)—A pit bull attack in July 2013 left a 19-year-old woman with her left ear ripped from her head, leaving an open wound. After preserving the ear, the surgical team started with a reconnection ...

Venture investments jump to $9.5B in 1Q

Funding for U.S. startup companies soared 57 percent in the first quarter to a level not seen since 2001, as venture capitalists piled more money into an increasing number of deals, according to a report due out Friday.