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Menopausal Mother Nature

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Climate change alters how plants go about their lives; here’s how

Scientists have found that climate change might be affecting plants’ functional traits. Shorter plants are growing, leafing and executing other biological changes earlier than their conventional duration. 

A study has revealed the impact on plant phenology. Phenology is the study of growing, leafing, flowering, fruiting and senescence (deterioration) stages in a plant’s life cycle.

The finding of the research were reported, Functional traits influence patterns in vegetative and reproductive plant phenology, which was published in New Phytologist June 28. 

PhenObs — an open network of researchers, citizens, scientists and students studying botanist gardens across the Northern Hemisphere — made the observations.  

The researchers studied 212 plant species across five botanical gardens in Germany. 

They measured traits like plant height, leaf area, carbon and nitrogen content, dry-matter content and seed mass. 

Phenology is one of the key indicators for observing the biological impacts of climate change, said Manzoor Shah, one of the paper’s co-authors. 

Shah, a botany professor at University of Kashmir, said over 85 per cent of plant species found in temperate ecosystems are herbaceous. 

“The flowering and fruiting times of these species are well documented. But there is less data, comparatively, on the leafing-out time and later stages like fruit maturation,” he said.

Shah explained that shorter species have a higher probability of leafing out earlier than taller species. “Shorter ones also need less time to reach flowering height,” he said. 

On digging deep, the researchers found leaf area played a crucial role in displaying functional traits.

“Plants with large leaves leafed out later. But deterioration due to ageing and cell degradation occurred earlier in species with larger leaves,” Shah said. 

Faizan Shafi Lone, a researcher on the study, said leaf senescence can be triggered by drought during summers or decreasing temperatures in autumn.

“Plants with larger leaves are more vulnerable to drought conditions or temperature changes. Smaller and thicker leaves seem to be more resistant to drought stress and less sensitive to drop in temperatures,” Lone said. 

Species with taller and larger leaves were found to change their flowering or fruiting time and pre-pone it to outcompete the smaller species.

The scientists also found that the early stages of initial growth in a plant and leaf unfolding during later stages depended on each other. 

The varied environmental conditions across the five botanical gardens played a determining factor in the onset and duration of plants. This was especially observed during their vegetative and, to some extent, reproductive stages.

Lone said with current climate change scenarios, plant species are seen advancing their phenology earlier in the year. 

Climate change likely has an influence on functional characteristics of plants, concluded Shah. This will affect competitive hierarchies — an ordered ranking from competitive dominant to competitive subordinate species — with consequences in global biodiversity. 

“We are planning to replicate the study in botanical gardens across the world to find the traits in terms of geography, local weather and other factors,” Shah said.

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