Plants and climate change: complexities and surprises (review)

Camille Parmesan and Mick E. Hanley introduce the special issue with a review of some of the surprises so far with plant responses to anthropogenic climate change.

A view over the fynbos
The inset cover image for this month’s Annals of Botany shows Protea nitida, a common shrub in the fynbos of the South African Cape Province, a habitat thought to be particularly susceptible to the impacts of anthropogenic climate change. See Parmesan and Hanley (2015).

This issue comes from a sponsored symposium session titled Plants and Climate Change: Complexities and Surprises, held during the 99th Ecological Society of America (ESA) meeting in Sacramento, California, in August 2014. The symposium was needed, say Parmesan and Hanley, because there has been an emphasis on ‘big picture’ predictions and responses. What they have found is that every biological community has a minority of species that are behaving in unpredicted ways. Not only are some species not responding as expect, they’re even responding in a different direction.

The review starts with phenological shifts. You’d expect that earlier spring warming would advance flowering and this is indeed usually the case. However, a closer look at long-term data explains why it’s not always the case. They next look at species distribution and how changes in location for plants relate to other factors impacting on invasive species.

While looking at the shape of things to come, they also examine the shape of plants themselves, examining what research has been done on plasticity and evolution. How will seed and seedling response vary. Finally is they ask if there’s a way to improve how we predict responses to climate change.

They find that responses to climate can be bizarre, but they can illuminate some of the complexity in the networks between plants and other species in their local environments.

It’s sadly far too topical a story with 2015 likely to be the hottest year we’ve known. If your library doesn’t have access to the papers at the moment, then this issue will be free access by December 2016. Sadly, the contents will be topical for a long while.