Climate change -- early spring: Predicting budburst with genetics

May 07, 2019

Although climate skeptics might find it hard to believe with this year's endless snow and freezing temperatures, climate change is making warm, sunny early springs increasingly common. And that affects when trees start to leaf out. But how much? In a study published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution, Simon Joly, biology professor at Université de Montréal and Elizabeth Wolkovich, an ecology professor at University of British Columbia, showed that a plant's genetics can be used to produce more accurate predictions of when its leaves will burst bud in spring.

"We discovered that when species and individual specimens within a species are very similar genetically, they tend to respond more similarly to environmental signals than those that are genetically dissimilar," said Joly, who is also a botanical researcher at the Jardin botanique de Montréal.

He came to this conclusion after responding to a call sent out by Elizabeth Wolkovich, a professor at the University of British Columbia who previously taught at Harvard University and studies how trees respond to climate change. She wanted to include genetics, one of Joly's areas of expertise, in her work to see if it could help better predict budburst.

They chose 10 tree and shrub species that are relatively common in Massachusetts and Quebec, including striped maple, American beech, northern red oak and specific types of honeysuckle, poplar and blueberry. Branches were collected from Harvard Forest in Massachusetts and UdeM's Station de biologie des Laurentides in January, once the trees and shrubs had been cold long enough for leaves to burst bud--given the right conditions.

"There are three main environmental signals that affect budburst: the length of time they've spent in the cold, warm temperatures and hours of daylight," said Elizabeth Wolkovich, who studies the influence of climate change on trees and other plants. "Once collected, the branches were kept chilled and sent to Harvard's Arnold Arboretum, where they were then placed in special growth chambers with controlled temperatures and hours of daylight."

The experiment was carried out with 8- and 12-hour-long days and daytime temperatures of 15 and 20 degrees Celsius.

The trees adapted

The experiment showed that a 5-degree increase in temperature causes leaves to burst bud 20 days earlier than average, though the impact on each species can vary considerably. Furthermore, more hours of daylight moved budburst up by about 12 days.

However, these estimates become more accurate once genetic information from the trees and shrubs has been factored in.

"This finding held true even though we didn't find major genetic differences between individual specimens of a single species between the two regions," said Joly. "Tree genes move around relatively quickly through pollen, so some individual specimens in Massachusetts could be genetically more closely related to specimens in Quebec than to other specimens in Massachusetts."

Even though it's still very hard to tell how climate change will affect spring, this study shows that plants react strongly to differences in climate and that their genetics help determine how well they adapt to these changes.

These findings open the door to a wide range of new studies

"We'll certainly consider genetics in future studies. For example, we may look at whether certain individual specimens within a species are better equipped to adapt to climate change and why," said Wolkovich. "That's how plant species might be able to adapt to what's coming. But of course this depends on how extreme the changes to our climate actually are, which remains an open question given current carbon emissions."

Joly also wonders how the ecosystem as a whole, including the insects that eat leaves, will react to higher temperatures. "Will they react in the same way as trees? These are the extremely complex questions that people are beginning to ask and that we have to study jointly with other researchers from different disciplines."
-end-
About the study

Simon Joly, Dan F. B. Flynn and Elizabeth Wolkovich, «On the importance of accounting for intraspecic genomic relatedness in multi-species studies», Methods in Ecology and Evolution, May 7 2019. The study has been funded by William F. Milton Funds at Harvard University.

University of Montreal

Related Climate Change Articles from Brightsurf:

Are climate scientists being too cautious when linking extreme weather to climate change?
Climate science has focused on avoiding false alarms when linking extreme events to climate change.

Mysterious climate change
New research findings underline the crucial role that sea ice throughout the Southern Ocean played for atmospheric CO2 in times of rapid climate change in the past.

Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.

Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.

Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.

Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.

A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.

Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).

Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.

Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.

Read More: Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.