Evolution drives how fast plants could migrate with climate change

July 28, 2016, University of British Columbia
Seeds are ready to disperse from the Arabidopsis thaliana plant in a greenhouse. Credit: Frida Feijen and Nicky Lustenhouwer

New research from the University of British Columbia suggests evolution is a driving mechanism behind plant migration, and that scientists may be underestimating how quickly species can move.

The study, published today in the journal Science, builds on previous research that has shown some and animals are moving farther north or to higher altitudes in an effort to escape rising global average temperatures due to climate change.

"We know from previous research that might play a role in how fast a can move across a region or continent," said Jennifer Williams, the study's lead author and an assistant professor in UBC's department of geography. "But what our study suggests is that evolution is not only a factor in movement, but that it can, in fact, accelerate the spread, and can do so predictably."

For the study, researchers used a small flowering plant (Arabidopsis thaliana), a common model organism in plant biology, to test the role of evolution in plant migration. Individual plants with different traits were cultivated together to create two sets of populations, one in which evolution was acting and another in which evolution was stopped.

They found that, after six generations, evolving dispersed seeds and migrated 11 per cent farther than non-evolving populations in landscapes with favourable conditions. Meanwhile, in landscapes where conditions were more challenging for the plants to disperse seeds, the evolving plant populations spread 200 per cent farther.

Evolving plant populations spread 200 percent farther in landscapes like this where conditions were more challenging for plants to disperse seeds. Credit: Jonathan Levine

The findings suggest that evolution accelerates the speed of migration, said Williams.

However, more research is needed to determine why the researchers saw a larger effect of evolution under the more challenging conditions, which in this case increased the speed of movement.

"We know, for example, that there are some species of butterflies and plants that are expanding their ranges with climate change and moving north or up in elevation," she said. "What our results suggest is that, with evolution, the species can move faster and faster because the traits that make them better at moving are becoming more common at the front of the invasion. In the case of our plants, in the evolving populations, their seeds can disperse a bit further."

Williams said the findings underscore the importance for scientists to account for evolutionary change when predicting how quickly native species will be able to move as the Earth's climate continues to warm.

Evolving plant populations dispersed seeds and migrated 11 percent farther in landscapes with favorable conditions, as shown here. Credit: Jonathan Levine

Explore further: Alberta wildflower helps scientists plan for climate change

More information: J. L. Williams et al, Rapid evolution accelerates plant population spread in fragmented experimental landscapes, Science (2016). DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf6268

Related Stories

Some plants evolve tolerance to deer

December 5, 2014

Rampant deer have long been munching away on forest plants and altering ecosystems, but new evidence suggests some plants are evolving tolerance to being eaten.

Recommended for you

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

The friendly extortioner takes it all

February 15, 2019

Cooperating with other people makes many things easier. However, competition is also a characteristic aspect of our society. In their struggle for contracts and positions, people have to be more successful than their competitors ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.