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‘Rule breaking’ plants may be the climate change survivors - Trinity College Dublin

Plants that break some of the ‘rules’ of ecology by adapting in unconventional ways may have a higher chance of surviving climate change, according to researchers from Trinity and the University of Queensland.

Professor Yvonne Buckley marking plantain plants in one of the study areas (Trinity College Dublin)
Professor Yvonne Buckley marking plantain plants in one of the study areas (Trinity College Dublin)

Dr Annabel Smith, from UQ’s School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, and Professor Yvonne Buckley, an honorary professor at UQ’s School of Biological Sciences and Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences, studied the humble plantain (Plantago lanceolata) in an attempt to see how it became one of the world’s most successfully distributed plant species.

Dr Smith said: “We hoped to find out how plants adapt to hotter, drier or more variable climates and whether there were factors that made them more likely to adapt or go extinct. The plantain, a small plant native to Europe, has spread wildly across the globe – we needed to know why it’s been so incredibly successful.”

The global team of more than 40 ecologists set up 53 monitoring sites in 21 countries, tagged thousands of individual plants, tracked plant deaths and new seedlings, counted flowers and seeds, and looked at DNA to see how many individual plants have historically been introduced outside Europe.

What they discovered went against existing tenets of ecological science.

“We were a bit shocked to find that some of the ‘rules of ecology’ simply didn’t apply to this species,” explained Dr Smith. “Ecologists use different theories to understand how nature works – developed and tested over decades with field research – these are the so-called ‘rules’. One of these theories describes how genetic diversity or variation in genes embedded in DNA is produced by changes in population size. Small populations tend to have little genetic diversity, while large populations with many offspring, such as those with lots of seeds, have more genetic diversity. Genetic diversity sounds boring, but actually it’s the raw material on which evolution acts; more genetic diversity means plants are better able to adapt to environmental changes, like climate change. We discovered that, in their native range, the environment determined their levels of genetic diversity. But, in new environments, these rule breakers were adapting better than most other plants.”

The team found the plantain’s success was due to multiple introductions around the world, which forced genetic diversity throughout the wider species.

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