Study investigates adaptability of trees to climate change

  • Art
  • July 10, 2024

During his recent year-long sabbatical, Daniel Laughlin led a study showing that trees can survive at temperatures higher or lower than the temperatures they currently grow in.

Although tree species apparently prefer specific climatic conditions, the true nature of these preferences is obscured by the interactions and dispersal among species, which limit the ranges of tree species.

“We were amazed. The result was crystal clear, and that doesn't always happen in ecology,” said Laughlin, a professor in the University of Wyoming Department of Botany. “We found that tree species could grow and survive in one common temperate temperature, even though many species are only found in cold or warm environments. In fact, many trees could expand their ranges by more than 25 percent based on their potential temperature tolerances.”

Laughlin is lead author of a paper titled “Trees have overlapping potential niches that extend beyond their realized niches,” published today (July 5) in Sciencea weekly, peer-reviewed scientific journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that publishes important original scientific research.

Brian McGill, a professor in the School of Biology and Ecology at the University of Maine, is a co-author of the paper. Laughlin and McGill share a common interest in understanding how species will respond to rapid changes in climate. To make progress on this pressing issue, they studied the abundance of North American tree species in arboreta around the world to quantify their tolerance to extremes of cold and heat.

The two researchers quantified realized and potential thermal niches of 188 North American tree species to provide a continental-scale test of niche architecture, the study said. The study included 23 tree species native to Wyoming, including Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, limber pine, lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine, aspen, Rocky Mountain juniper and plains cottonwood.

A tree species' realized niche is where you find it in nature, while its potential niche is where you could find it but don't because it has been outcompeted by other tree species or couldn't disperse there, Laughlin said.

“For example, the realized niche of the Wyoming native Engelmann spruce is high-elevation subalpine forests,” Laughlin explains. “However, the potential niche also includes warmer locations, such as along riverbanks at lower elevations, where the trees could survive. But they are not found there because they are outcompeted by faster-growing cottonwoods.”

The two researchers found strong and consistent evidence that tree species found in extreme temperatures occupy less than 75 percent of their potential niches, and that the species' potential niches overlap at an average annual temperature of 12 degrees Celsius, or about 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

“When we walk through the forest, we see with our own eyes that tree species are in different places. This is a core principle of ecology,” Laughlin says. “But where species actually occur in nature is only a fraction of their potential distribution, because competition with other species and dispersal constraints limit where they actually occur.”

The new results challenge a core assumption of most current methods for predicting species distributions. According to Laughlin, these results suggest that ecologists need to get serious about quantifying the full range of environments that are acceptable to plants.

“This is a crucial piece of missing information to be able to predict how they respond to a warming world,” Laughlin said.

The results also suggest that tree species will have a different fate. Cold-tolerant trees, such as Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir, may not need to migrate to stay within their climate tolerances. However, warm-tolerant species, such as live oak and longleaf pine, will need to migrate.

“North American tree species have been navigating changing climates for millions of years. We know that trees have moved across the continent over long periods of time to follow suitable climate conditions, but we don't know how this will play out over the coming decades and centuries,” Laughlin said. “For example, the climate in Laramie may soon be suitable for trees from the Southwest that are adapted to warmer conditions, but we don't know for sure which species will arrive first. Understanding the fundamental temperature tolerances of trees is an important first step to improving our predictions of how tree species' ranges will shift over time.”

Laughlin's sabbatical, which will take place in the 2023-2024 academic year, was supported by a UW Flittie Sabbatical Augmentation Award and a Global Perspectives grant from the UW College of Agriculture, Life Sciences and Natural Resources.

Related Posts

  • Art
  • July 25, 2024
  • 2 views
  • 4 minutes Read
Researchers discover a faster, more energy-efficient way to produce an industrially important chemical

Polypropylene is a common type of plastic that is used in many essential products today, such as food containers and medical devices. Because polypropylene is so popular, the demand for…

  • Art
  • July 24, 2024
  • 3 views
  • 5 minutes Read
Urban moss study raises concerns about lead levels in older Portland neighborhoods

A new study of urban moss has found that lead levels in moss in older Portland, Oregon, neighborhoods that used lead telecommunications cables are up to 600 times higher than…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You Missed

LeVar Burton Talks His Changing Definition of Success on NPR's 'Wild Card' : NPR

  • July 25, 2024
LeVar Burton Talks His Changing Definition of Success on NPR's 'Wild Card' : NPR

Doctors react to Biden's live address to nation, concerned about 'lack of emotion'

  • July 25, 2024
Doctors react to Biden's live address to nation, concerned about 'lack of emotion'

USWNT defender Tierna Davidson on 'difficult situation' created by Korbin Albert's anti-LGBTQ posts

  • July 25, 2024
USWNT defender Tierna Davidson on 'difficult situation' created by Korbin Albert's anti-LGBTQ posts

South Korea GDP, Wall Street Sell-Off

  • July 25, 2024
South Korea GDP, Wall Street Sell-Off

This Retirement Misstep Could Cost You More Than $100,000 in Savings. Here’s What You Need to Know.

  • July 25, 2024
This Retirement Misstep Could Cost You More Than $100,000 in Savings. Here’s What You Need to Know.

Nvidia's latest AI offering could spark a gold rush for custom models

  • July 25, 2024
Nvidia's latest AI offering could spark a gold rush for custom models

Scouting Report for U.S. National Team Opponents at the 2024 Olympics: What to Know About Zambia and Barbra Banda as the U.S. Begins Its Journey

  • July 25, 2024
Scouting Report for U.S. National Team Opponents at the 2024 Olympics: What to Know About Zambia and Barbra Banda as the U.S. Begins Its Journey

Netanyahu thanks US for support at 'crossroads in history', calls protesters 'useful idiots'

  • July 25, 2024
Netanyahu thanks US for support at 'crossroads in history', calls protesters 'useful idiots'

Researchers discover a faster, more energy-efficient way to produce an industrially important chemical

  • July 25, 2024
Researchers discover a faster, more energy-efficient way to produce an industrially important chemical

Xander Schauffele or Scottie Scheffler for PGA Tour Player of the Year?

  • July 25, 2024
Xander Schauffele or Scottie Scheffler for PGA Tour Player of the Year?

Biden tells US it's time to pass the torch to Harris

  • July 25, 2024
Biden tells US it's time to pass the torch to Harris