Plant responses to climate change — insights from plant invasion ecology

Plants are moving as their habitats change due to climate change. For species to persist they must adapt or move somewhere else. Species dynamics are extremely hard to predict, making global change research a challenging enterprise. There is, however, no shortage of cases of alien plants spreading following their introduction to new areas by humans. Many plant invasions have been studied in great detail, and this research has yielded many new insights on the processes that mediate such range changes and how the addition of new species to an ecosystem can radically change many aspects of its functioning.

In September 2011, a workshop was held at the Ecological Society of America’s annual conference in Austin, Texas to explore how emerging insights from plant invasion ecology could inform strategies for dealing with rapid climate change. Ten participants from around the world with diverse interests in the ecological, evolutionary and social dimensions of plant invasions presented papers in a special session of the conference. The C·I·B was represented by Dave Richardson who presented a summary of recent work on diverse aspects of the invasion ecology of Australian acacias. The global-scale natural experiment of introductions of many taxa in this genus to many ecosystems around the world has been very useful for unravelling some of the many factors that influence how a new addition to an ecosystem will respond, and how the new species can potentially affect ecosystems to which it is introduced.

A synthesis paper that grew from the 10 presentations, deliberations at the meeting, and subsequent interactions between the delegates has been published in the journal Oikos. The paper discusses how concepts from invasion biology can contribute to questions relevant to climate change research. Many of these concepts (see Figure) deal with the properties that a plant needs to be able to track environmental conditions or to adapt to new conditions. The colonisation of new environments emphasizes the role of dispersal, which has been intensely studied in invasion biology.

Invasion processes are not entirely analogous with plant movements in response to climate change but they do present some useful examples and a large volume of data which could be synthesised to shed light on ecological, evolutionary and social processes that are involved when plants move.

Colonization process

Read the paper

Caplat, P., Cheptou, P.-O., Diez, J., Guisan, A., Larson, B.M.H., Macdougall, A.S., Peltzer, D.A., Richardson, D.M., Shea, K., Van Kleunen, M., Zhang, R. and Buckley, Y.M. 2013. Movement, impacts and management of plant distributions in response to climate change: insights from invasions. Oikos. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0706.2013.00430.x

For more information, contact Dave Richardson.